North Korea's hostility toward the Republic of Korea (ROK, South Korea) and the United States resulted in what can only be labeled as reckless behavior in 1968. On 21 January 1968, a squad of thirty-one North Korean commandos penetrated the demilitarized zone along the 38th Parallel and reached the northern edge of Seoul with the acknowledged mission of assassinating South Korean President Park Chung Hee. When they were within a mile of the Blue House (the South Korean presidential mansion), they were detected by South Korean police. A gun battle ensued, with all but three commandos killed. One was taken prisoner. Amid this atmosphere, the North Koreans seized the Pueblo on 23 January, just two days after the attempted assassination of Park.
Captained by Commander Lloyd M. Bucher, the Pueblo (SGRT-21) was an American intelligence-gathering ship operating off the eastern coast of North Korea. Built by the U.S. Army in 1944 as a general-purpose supply vessel, it had been transferred to the navy in 1966. Converted and commissioned in 1967 as an auxiliary general environmental research (AGER) ship, the Pueblo was actually designed for intelligence gathering. Essentially a small cargo vessel (850 tons and 177 feet in length), the ship was slow (12.5 knots) and only lightly armed, with .50-caliber machine guns. It was also equipped with the most sophisticated modern intelligence devices, and twenty-seven members of its eighty-two-man crew were cryptographic and intelligence personnel. The vessel was in international waters essentially unprotected, supposedly conducting oceanographic research but actually involved in gathering electronic intelligence on North Korea. When the ship was taken, Pyongyang claimed that it had entered North Korean territorial waters in Wonsan Bay. Washington insisted that the Pueblo had been at least 13 miles beyond the 12-mile limit imposed by North Korea.
During the actual seizure of the ship—the first U.S. warship to be surrendered to a foreign power since the War of 1812—one crewman was killed and several others, including Bucher, were wounded. The ship was then taken into Wonsan harbor under its own power. The North Koreans treated the ship's crew brutally, and on 26 January Japanese television aired a film made by the North Koreans in which Bucher and his crew signed a joint appeal to U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson to apologize to the North Korean government for the intrusion of the Pueblo. Meanwhile, North Korean radio broadcast Bucher's alleged confession, which stated that his ship had deliberately intruded into North Korea's territorial waters.
The seizure of the Pueblo, without a shot being fired in its defense, caused great controversy in the United States. Bucher was both condemned and praised, but certainly the responsibility for the ship's capture extended far up the chain of command. The vessel was inadequately protected, and it received no support from any other source when attacked. Capture of the ship's sophisticated listening devices and cryptographic equipment was a great windfall for the communist intelligence services.
On 24 January, U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk described the seizure as "an act of war." The next day, President Johnson called up a number of U.S. Air Force Reserve, Air National Guard, and Navy Reserve units, a total of 14,787 personnel, and declared that American forces in and around South Korea would be strengthened. He also ordered the aircraft carrier Enterprise to take up a position off the North Korean coast. In the days and weeks to come, the task force would include three cruisers, five carriers in addition to the Enterprise, eighteen destroyers, and the Pueblo's sister ship the Banner (AGER-1). But the United States undertook no hostile action against North Korea, and Johnson announced that the U.S. government would seek "a prompt and a peaceful solution to the problem." Already facing an untenable situation in Vietnam, Washington did not wish to settle the Pueblo case by military force. Perhaps aware of this, Pyongyang defiantly declared that it was prepared to meet any eventuality and would deal any American attacks an "exterminating blow."
Taking a hint from a statement over Radio Pyongyang that the Pueblo case could be solved by direct negotiation, Washington initiated secret talks with the North Korean government at the truce village of Panmunjom in February 1968. By 4 March, the United States and North Korea had met ten times at Panmunjom. The North Koreans insisted that the United States must admit to and apologize for the supposed intrusion. Meanwhile, Radio Pyongyang reported on 12 February that Captain Bucher made a "second confession," and on 4 March Johnson received a letter purported to be from Pueblo crewmen asking Washington to admit that the vessel had violated North Korean waters. From 22 March to 2 April, the North Korean government circulated a series of letters allegedly written by the prisoners and warned that a refusal to apologize could cost lives. Then, on 13 September, Japanese newspapers reported a news conference in Pyongyang at which the Pueblo crewmen allegedly said that they had been ordered to intrude into the 3-mile limit of North Korea's territorial waters.
Ten months of negotiations finally led to the 22 December 1968 release of Commander Bucher and eighty-one Pueblo crew members after the United States issued a statement of apology on 21 December acknowledging that the Pueblo "had illegally intruded into [North Korean] territorial waters." Washington also pledged that no U.S. ships would intrude into the territorial waters of North Korea in the future. Although U.S. chief negotiator Major General Gilbert H. Woodward read a statement inserted into the record disavowing the confession before signing the statement prepared by North Koreans, the North Korean government claimed a great moral as well as diplomatic victory. The North Koreans did not return the Pueblo.
During 1966–1969, emboldened by America's preoccupation with Vietnam, the North Korean government tested U.S. resolve to defend South Korea by waging what many historians consider a second Korean conflict. During that period in Korea, U.S. casualties numbered 82 killed and 114 wounded. Also, 85 Americans were taken prisoner, including the 82 from the Pueblo. After 1969, when it became clear to the North Koreans that the United States was determined to remain firm in South Korea, the hostile actions diminished.
Hooper, Edwin B., et al. "The Pueblo Incident." Naval History 2(4) (Fall 1988): 53–59.; Lloyd M. Bucher. Bucher: My Story. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1970.; Nahm, Andrew C. "The United States and North Korea since 1945." Pp. 99–142 in Korean-American Relations, 1866–1997. Edited by Yur-bok Lee and Wayne Patterson. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999.