Infiltrating North Korea Part 12: A North Korean History Lesson about the U.S.S. Pueblo

The largest symbol of anti-Americanism in North Korea is undoubtedly the USS Pueblo. Naturally, this is an obligatory stop for all tourist groups.

The Pueblo is an American spy ship that was captured just off the coast of North Korea on January 23, 1968. The North Koreans claim the ship was in their territorial waters while the Americans claim it was not. It was fired upon, boarded, and then taken to the port of Wonsan.

Today, the spy ship sits moored to the bank of the Taedong River where we visited it one drizzly afternoon. We were met at the gangplank by one of the only English speaking docents we had the entire trip. She was dressed in a conservative uniform and spoke with a very matter-of-fact tone.

We followed her onto the ship and into a small room with a handful of chairs and a television. This is where we’d spend the next 20 minutes being indoctrinated by a North Korean video about the Pueblo incident.

The narrator was scathing and never missed the opportunity to add the word “imperialist” after every time he mentioned “American.” He told us how the ship was captured in North Korean waters and how the American government continually claimed it was a fishing trawler–something that even I found a little embarrassing when we later toured the ship and its enormous banks of encryption machines and electronic monitoring devices.

The video also included black and white clips of the 82 soldiers captured on board. The video made no mention of the torture and beatings they endured while in captivity, however, and focused instead focused on quotes by the sailors claiming they were being treated better than they deserved.

We were also told how the crew signed a letter of confession admitting that they were spying on North Korea. The fact that Lloyd Bucher, the Pueblo’s commanding officer, underwent a mock execution and was told that his men would be shot one by one until he signed the confession was conveniently left out of the story.

In addition, two classic acts of defiance were ignored. When the North Koreans forced Bucher to read his confession on a radio broadcast, he cleverly mispronounced “paen,” the Korean word for praise. And so he told the world, “We pee on the North Korean state, we pee on their great leader Kim Il Sung.”

Although the North Koreans never realized the pun, they did discover another act of defiance, although too late. It wasn’t until propaganda photos taken of the “healthy” crew were released to the world that the North Koreans discovered the true meaning behind so many middle fingers sticking out. Unfortunately, when they did find out, the surviving crew suffered terribly with increased beatings.

North Korea refused to release their captives until the United States apologized. It took 11 months but finally President Johnson acquiesced, much to the glee of our smartly-dressed guide who proudly told us that this was the first time the United States had ever apologized to another nation. The narrator of the video rubbed it in even further, mocking Maj. Gen. Gilbert H. Woodward who signed the apology as being too “confused” to even remember to sign the date.

Naturally, nothing was mentioned about the United States later disavowing the apology or about the statement Woodward read before signing it; “The paper which I am going to sign was prepared by the North Koreans and is at variance with the above position…but my signature will not and cannot alter the facts. I will sign the document to free the crew and only to free the crew.”

Walking through the spy ship war trophy after watching the video certainly left a bad taste in my mouth, especially after hearing the narrator’s final statement that, “the American imperialists are an aggressor that should be annihilated by force of arms.”

Yes, the Americans were spying and yes, the North Koreans caught them, but so much of the story was purposely left out to paint a very one-sided portrait of the affair. It was classic North Korean propaganda and it provided some fascinating insight into the communist government’s control, manipulation, and resultant mindset of their population. The only difference from what we experienced during our “education” about the Pueblo is that the North Korean people have no outside source of information to confirm or deny what the government tells them. Nor, for that matter, will they ever have the chance to learn for themselves about the bizarre submarine incursions their own government has ordered into the South.

For more information about the Pueblo, be sure to click here to visit a fascinating website maintained by the former crew.

Yesterday: North Korean Style Advertising
Tomorrow: Kids will be Kids