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A Reckless Act: The 1968 Pueblo Crisis and North Korea’s Relations with the Third World

Benjamin R. Young

The 1968 crisis over the USS Pueblo harmed Pyongyang’s reputation in the Third World by demonstrating that Kim Il Sung’s underhanded guerilla-style tactics risked plunging the Korean peninsula into another war.

The USS Pueblo docked on the Taedong River in Pyongyang.
The USS Pueblo, a US naval intelligence ship captured by North Korea in 1968, is docked on the Taedong River in Pyongyang in April 2010. Photographed by John Pavelka.

On January 23, 1968, North Korea captured the USS Pueblo, an unarmed US Navy intelligence vessel, in international waters. The North Koreans held the 83 man crew hostage for 11 torturous months.

While much has been written on the Pueblo in recent years, the important effects of this event on Third World relations with North Korea remain little known.[1] The Pueblo, as it turned out, represented a key turning point in North Korea’s ties to the Third World during the Cold War era, a history that I delve deeply into in my new book, Guns, Guerrillas, and the Great Leader.

Although North Korea depicted the capture of the Pueblo ship and crew as another victory for the North Korean people over US imperialism, the Pueblo crisis also demonstrated that Kim Il Sung’s underhanded guerilla-style tactics risked plunging the Korean peninsula into another war. By exposing the DPRK government as a volatile and aggressive actor on the global stage, the brazen seizure of the Pueblo ended up harming Pyongyang’s reputation in the Third World and did little to increase international sympathy for Kim Il Sung’s regime.

Frustrated Allies

Two days after the capture of the Pueblo, the North Korean government summoned foreign diplomats posted in Pyongyang to tell them the news of the incident. The North Koreans represented the incident as a US violation of their sovereignty and territorial boundaries. Esmat Naguib, the chargé d'affaires of Egypt to North Korea, “was informed about the capture of the American espionage ship [USS Pueblo] by the North Korean coast guard for violating the territorial waters of the DPRK,” according to one Romanian dispatch from Pyongyang. Naguib asked North Korea’s Deputy Foreign Minister Heo Dam whether the Soviet Union pressured Kim Il Sung to release the American servicemen. Heo responded: “The DPRK would never allow a third party, no matter whom, to meddle in this matter, which is under the exclusive authority of the DPRK.”

 Naguib believed North Korea’s capture of the Pueblo and a failed assassination attempt on the South Korean President in Seoul on January 17, known as the Blue House raid, were meant to “effectively and directly help the North Vietnamese people with the consent of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.” The DPRK’s boldness and aggressiveness in confronting the US and South Korea shocked Egypt and other Third World partners.

Many Third World nations negatively viewed North Korea’s actions regarding the capture of the Pueblo and imprisonment of its crewmembers. For example, the Libyan Foreign Minister al-Arabi told his US counterparts in Tripoli that he viewed the US position on the matter as “reasonable” and that the Libyan people opposed North Korea’s aggressive actions. The U.S embassy in Libya reported that al-Arabi “said that the word ‘Pueblo’ had now entered the Libyan vocabulary to describe a card player who was ‘sneaky.’”[2]

While some historians have portrayed the Pueblo incident and Blue House raid as having been coordinated with Vietnam’s Tet Offensive on January 31, Balazs Szalontai’s article on North Korea’s militant strategy concludes that this portrayal is purely conjecture and only based on coincidental timing.

In fact, the Pueblo crisis strained North Korea’s relations with the Vietnamese Communists. The Romanian Embassy in the DPRK reported on February 16, 1968, that North Vietnamese and NLF diplomats posted in Pyongyang were frustrated by North Korea’s recent provocations. Vu Ngoc Ho, the representative of the NLF in Pyongyang, told the Romanian ambassador in Pyongyang “with unrestrained anxiety” that “the North Koreans, in an attempt to underline the alleged similarity between the situation in South Korea and that in South Vietnam, affirmed that just like the revolution in South Vietnam cannot endure for too long without the help of North Vietnam, so the revolution in South Korea needs the help of North Korea.”

North Korea’s decision to seize the Pueblo seems to have been undertaken without consideration of Vietnam’s stance on the matter. Le Thet Hung, the ambassador of North Vietnam to Pyongyang, told his Romanian counterpart that the North Korean leadership’s comparison of the revolutionary situation on the Korean peninsula with the Vietnamese struggle “did not make any sense, being completely unrealistic.” Le Thet Hung continued: “It is imbued with wishful thinking, it denies the nature of the mass revolution of the Vietnamese people, and it does not recognize the efforts and successes achieved by the Vietnamese people.”

Vietnamese officials clearly disagreed with North Korea’s independent decision to seize the Pueblo, which may have provoked the US into increasing its military presence in Asia.

“Interest and Some Sympathy”

Nevertheless, some Third World peoples accepted North Korea’s version of the events and saw the USS Pueblo as violating the territorial boundaries of the DPRK, which won Kim Il Sung a small degree of sympathy in the Third World. For example, the US embassy in Quito said that although North Korea tried to disseminate its propaganda in Ecuador, very little of it reached the general public due to Ecuadorian government controls. However, the US embassy noted that “there may be interest and some sympathy” for North Korea amongst Ecuadorian leftists “due in part to the Pueblo incident.”[3] 

On February 1, 1968, The Pyongyang Times published an article alleging that the world’s people supported the DPRK in denouncing the “extremely brazen and arrogant brigandish act of the U.S imperialist aggressors.” Citing supportive articles in Soviet, Cuban, Polish, East German, Czechoslovak, Cambodian, and Algerian newspapers, the article proclaimed, “the world people unanimously stress the correctness of the line of self-defense put forth by Comrade Kim Il Sung.”[4] A few days later, the Rodong Sinmun ran a similar article citing Laotian, Japanese, and Puerto Rican figures that supported the DPRK’s stance on the Pueblo incident.[5]

One government official from India even criticized the US for the Pueblo incident, as it justified North Korea’s militarization. Vinod C. Khanna, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs Desk Officer for Korea and Mongolia, said after his October 1968 trip to North Korea, “The Pueblo incident by lending credibility to the incessant propaganda about dangerous and aggressive ‘U.S imperialists’ planning to convert North Korea into a colony, played into the hands of the [North] Korean regime and provided it justification for what may otherwise appear an oppressive continued diversion of funds to defense.”[6]

Third World Intermediaries

Members of the Third World played another important role in the Pueblo crisis: as intermediaries between Washington and Pyongyang.

The US government used North Korea’s recent diplomatic offensive in the Third World to its advantage, as it positioned non-aligned nations as intermediaries in alleviating the Pueblo crisis. More than seven months after the initial capture of the Pueblo crewmembers, the US State Department sent a telegram to its embassies stating, “We wish, when feasible, to take advantage of presence of North Korean groups in non-aligned or friendly capitals to exert, through host governments, indirect pressure on [the] regime in [an] effort to obtain [the] release of Pueblo crew or at least [an] amelioration of conditions under which they are confined.”[7]

Some Third World government officials inquired with their North Korean counterparts on the conditions of the imprisoned American servicemen and the general incident. However, the North Koreans rarely budged. For example, the Foreign Affairs Minister and a government official from Dahomey (currently the country of Benin) pressed a visiting North Korean delegation in late August 1968 on the Pueblo incident. However, the Dahomeyans “received only stock answers from North Korean delegation, that is, that Pueblo had violated Korean national waters but U.S refused [to] apologize and that this attitude clearly reflected the haughty view of U.S imperialism vis-à-vis a smaller country.” According to the Dahomeyan government official, “North Korean delegation gave no indication of being prepared to release the Pueblo any time in near future.”[8]

Afro-Asian nations wanted to link the invitation of North Korea to the UN Security Council debate on the Korean question with the release of the Pueblo crew and ship.[9] However, the U.S ambassador to the UN Arthur Goldberg “expressed concern regarding the [UN] decision to invite both Koreas [as it] could work against goal of constructive and prompt action by the Security Council to help defuse [the] Pueblo crisis. Goldberg “noted that [the] U.S and North Korea already have channels for direct contacts and [a] North Korean presence in New York [would] likely produce only lengthy, poisonous, and fruitless debate.”[10] Despite wanting the release of the Pueblo crew and ship, the US did not want North Korea to take advantage of the crisis in order to gain legitimacy in international forums, such as the UN.

A Victory over Imperialism?

After the US admitted its intrusion into the DPRK’s territorial waters, North Korea agreed to release the 82 surviving Pueblo crewmembers exactly 11 months after their initial capture. Although the US government maintained that the Pueblo never entered the DPRK’s territorial boundaries and only admitted to an intrusion as a way to secure the crew’s release, North Korea’s state-run media depicted this confession as a victory for small countries over imperialism.

A January 27, 1969, article in The Pyongyang Times was entitled, “The incident of US imperialist armed spy ship Pueblo serves as a good occasion for proving with a concrete example the truth that even small countries can win victory when they fight valiantly against imperialism.” The article gathered statements from various Third World media outlets and leaders asserting the brilliance of the North Korean leadership in making the US surrender again. A member of the Southwest African People’s Organization’s (SWAPO) Central Committee reportedly said that the admission by Washington regarding the Pueblo’s violation of the DPRK’s sovereignty“is a heavy political and moral defeat unprecedented in the history of aggression of the U.S imperialists.” In addition, a representative of the African Independence Party of Portuguese Guinea and Cape Verde islands proclaimed that the North Korean capture of the Pueblo was a “deserving punishment” for the US aggressors and was “one more victory for the Korean people.”[11] North Korea tried to use the US admission of guilt as a way to undermine American global authority.

While the incident demonstrated Kim’s brashness in confronting US imperialism, it also nurtured fears in the Third World that Pyongyang’s guerilla-style tactics, such as a sudden ambush of a US spy ship and capture of its crewmen, could plunge the Third World into yet another prolonged and destructive war. The Pueblo crisis ultimately hurt Kim Il Sung’s image in the Third World and particularly damaged his valuable relationship with the Vietnamese Communists.

The Pueblo figured prominently in North Korea’s changing status in the Third World, from a model developmental state to a reckless terrorist nation – a story told in greater depth in Guns, Guerrillas, and the Great Leader.

 


[1] Mitchell Lerner, The Pueblo Incident: A Spy Ship and the Failure of American Foreign Policy (Lawrence, KS: The University Press of Kansas, 2002); Jack Cheevers, Act of War: Lyndon Johnson, North Korea, and the Capture of the Spy Ship Pueblo (New York: Penguin, 2013).

[2] Telegram, From AmEmbassy Tripoli to Dept. of State, Subject: Korea at UN, December 10, 1968. Folder POL 32-4, KOR/UN, 12/1/1968. Box 2261. RG 59: General Records of the Department of State, Central Foreign Policy Files 1967-1969, Political and Defense, Pol 32-4 KOR/UN to POL KOR N. NARA II.

[3] Telegram, From AmEmbassy, Quito to Dept. of State, Subject: North Korean Efforts to Expand Diplomatic Recognition, June 30, 1968. Folder POL Kor N-Afr 1/1/67. Box 2263. RG 59: General Records of the Department of State, Central Foreign Policy Files 1967-1969, Political and Defense, Pol 32-4 KOR/UN to POL KOR N. NARA II.

[4] “Whole World Severely Condemns U.S Imperialist Brigandish Acts and Resolutely Supports Our Just Struggle,” February 1, 1968, The Pyongyang Times.

[5] “Chosŏninmin'gwaŭi chŏnt'ujŏngnyŏndaesŏngŭl kanghwahaja,” February 5, 1968. Rodong Sinmun.

[6] Airgram, From AmEmbassy, New Delhi to Dept. of State, Subject: Indian Assessment of North Korea, October 17, 1968. Folder POL 2, KOR N, 1/1/1967. Box 2262. RG 59: General Records of the Department of State, Central Foreign Policy Files 1967-1969, Political and Defense, POL 7 KOR N to POL 7 KOR N. NARA II.

[7] Dept. of State Outgoing Telegram, Subject: USS Pueblo, August 2, 1968. FOLDER POL 16, KOR N, 1/1/67. Box 2262. RG 59: General Records of the Department of State, Central Foreign Policy Files 1967-1969, Political and Defense, POL 7 KOR N to POL 7 KOR N. NARA II.

[8] Telegram, From AmEmbassy, Cotonou to SecState, Subject: Pueblo Affair, August 21, 1968. FOLDER POL 7, KOR N, 1/1/68. Box 2262. RG 59: General Records of the Department of State, Central Foreign Policy Files 1967-1969, Political and Defense, POL 7 KOR N to POL 7 KOR N. NARA II.

[9] Telegram, From U.S Mission UN NY to SecState, Subject: Korea Round Up, January 30, 1968. Folder: POL 32-4 KOR/UN 1/1/68. Box 2261. RG 59: General Records of the Department of State, Central Foreign Policy Files 1967-1969, Political and Defense, Pol 32-4 KOR/UN to POL KOR N. NARA II.

[10] Telegram, From U.S Mission UN NY to SecState, Subject: Korea in SC, January 28, 1968. Folder: POL 32-4 KOR/UN 1/1/68. Box 2261. RG 59: General Records of the Department of State, Central Foreign Policy Files 1967-1969, Political and Defense, Pol 32-4 KOR/UN to POL KOR N. NARA II.

[11] “The incident of U.S imperialist armed spy ship Pueblo serves as a good occasion for proving with a concrete example the truth that even small countries can win victory when they fight valiantly against imperialism,” January 27, 1969, ThePyongyang Times.

About the Author

Benjamin R. Young

Benjamin R. Young

Assistant Professor in Homeland Security & Emergency Preparedness, Virginia Commonwealth University.

Benjamin R. Young is an Assistant Professor in Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). He is the author of Guns, Guerillas, and the Great Leader: North Korea and the Third World (Stanford University Press, 2021)

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