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U.S. ship in N. Korea symbolizes resistance

- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 29, 2005

PYONGYANG, North Korea -- In the center of the North Korean capital floats a commissioned vessel of the U.S. Navy.

The USS Pueblo, a spy ship captured by the North in 1968, is moored on a bank of the Daedong River. Despite quiet U.S. moves in recent years to secure its return, the vessel still functions as tourist attraction, trophy and symbol of anti-American struggle.

By no coincidence, the Pueblo is moored on the spot where the first Korean-American interaction took place. In 1866, an armed American steamer, the General Sherman, was destroyed on the Daedong with all hands aboard after it attempted to force trade with Korea. According to a modern tablet at the site, the man who led the attack was none other than the great-great-grandfather of the country's late leader, Kim Il-sung.

Although the story of the General Sherman is near-forgotten history, the Pueblo incident is well documented.

Visitors are guided around by Ryu Ok-hui of Pyongyang's Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum. In the wardroom, a cliche-laden propaganda video tells the story of the unlucky vessel.

On Jan. 11, 1968, the 895-ton Pueblo cast off from Sasebo, Japan. Her 83-member crew was tasked with electronic intelligence gathering.

However, as her mission was considered low risk -- the Pueblo would be operating in international waters -- she was armed only with machine guns; her top speed was 12.7 knots. More critically, she was not provided with U.S. air and naval cover.

On Jan. 23, four North Korean torpedo boats and two submarine chasers approached the Pueblo. MiG fighters flew overhead. When North Korean sailors attempted to board, Cmdr. Lloyd Bucher took evasive action and radioed U.S. forces in Japan for assistance. None was forthcoming.

The North Koreans opened fire. The resultant damage, circled with red ink, is clearly visible.

Helpless, Cmdr. Bucher struck his flag. His crew made frantic efforts to destroy classified material, but all cipher machines were captured. One U.S. sailor, Duane Hodges, was killed and others were wounded.

The Pueblo was taken to the east coast port of Wonsan and her crew was marched into captivity. For 11 months, they suffered beatings and psychological torture.

The Lyndon B. Johnson administration, already bogged down in Vietnam, finally signed a humiliating agreement that admitted spying. The crew, but not the ship, was freed on Dec. 23. A copy of the agreement is framed on board.

The unlucky vessel's story did not finish there. As no east-west waterway crosses the Korean Peninsula, analysts were astonished when, in 1999, the Pueblo appeared in Pyongyang.

North Korea had disguised the Pueblo and sailed her around the peninsula, under the noses of the U.S. and South Korean navies, into Pyongyang.

Cmdr. Bucher retired from the Navy in 1973, grew avocados and enjoyed some success as an artist specializing in watercolor landscapes before dying at a California nursing home in 2004 at age 76.

Among former crew members, the incident remains sensitive. One said in a succinct e-mail: "Smuggle in some plastic explosive and blow the [North Koreans] up."

Donald Gregg, an ex-CIA officer and U.S. ambassador to South Korea from 1989 to 1993, suggested during an April 2002 trip to North Korea that Pyongyang return the vessel to improve relations.

Mr. Gregg said the North responded with a "cryptic note" from Deputy Foreign Minister Kim Gye-kwon that he considered a tentatively positive reply, but the United States did not respond.

Mr. Gregg returned to Pyongyang in November 2002 to pursue the matter, but by then Washington had confronted Pyongyang with evidence of a secret nuclear arms program.

"The atmosphere had soured," Mr. Gregg said, "and Kim Gye-kwon told me that the Pueblo deal was off the table."

In a trip this year, he was told that a visit to North Korea by a "Cabinet-level" official -- of a rank appropriate to meet leader Kim Jong-il -- might resolve the issue.

But Miss Ryu, the tour guide, insisted there would never be a deal. "Gregg came here and asked when we would return the Pueblo," she said. "We said: 'Never.' "