23rd Dec. marks a special anniversary for a group of American navy veterans. Forty years ago their ship, the USS Pueblo was captured by North Korea. On December 23rd, 1968 after 11 months of captivity, they were finally set free. But these days, the Pueblo serves a much different purpose. It’s a tourist attraction in Pyongyang. Reporter Jason Strother had the chance to go onboard the ship.
The USNS Observation Island, another U.S. navy intelligence ship, designed to track intelligence data on foreign ballistic missile tests in the pacific
“This is the US spy ship, Pueblo. It invaded the territorial waters of our republic.”
My tour group’s guide, Mr. Kim, leads us into what was once the ship’s mess hall to watch an 18-minute long propaganda film.
“The crew unanimously admitted the fact that they had intruded deep into our territorial waters and conducted espionage on 17 occasions and signed a joint apology to the DPRK government.”
The film shows black and white photos and video of the Pueblo’s 82-man crew. During a staged press conference, an officer from the Pueblo points to the spot on a map where they allegedly entered North Korean waters. Throughout the video, the men look well dressed and healthy.
But they say they were often beaten and threatened with execution. Their capture dragged on for 11-months until they were finally repatriated across the Demilitarized Zone on December 23rd, 1968.
The Pueblo is a great trophy of what North Koreans see as a victory over a much stronger enemy.
In addition to the busloads of foreign tourists, our guide tells us that around 150 North Koreans visit the ship each day. As we walk along the deck of the vessel, a young female solder, dressed in a pale green uniform, shows us the hundreds of bullet holes circled in red paint, that dot the ship’s exterior.
The crew of the Pueblo denies they fired any shots. But Mr. Kim while pointing to a machine gun turret, claims otherwise.
“First they shoot using this machine gun, we answered by the gun.”
We’re then shown the spot where Duane Hodges, the only soldier to die, was killed when the ship was seized.
US attempts to get it back
Some US politicians think they can get the Pueblo back. But others insist the Pueblo isn’t going anywhere. Brian Myers is a specialist on North Korean propaganda at Dongseo University in Busan, South Korea.
“It serves an important function. It shows visiting people that North Korea is resolute, that North Korea will stand up against the United States no matter what it does, so I can’t see them giving it up for any reason.”
After 40 minutes on board the Pueblo, my tour group was led back onto the dock. More visitors were soon to arrive.
I asked the soldier what she thought about the Pueblo’s future and if Kim Jong il would ever give the Pueblo back to the United States.
She answers that if America changes it attitudes toward North Korea, then maybe that will be possible someday.