An international incident 38 years ago this month remains shrouded in mystery.
On the bitterly cold morning of Jan. 23, 1968, an American intelligence vessel, USS Pueblo, was operating in international waters off the coast of North Korea. It was surrounded by four North Korean patrol boats, with two MiG aircraft flying overhead. The boats ordered the Pueblo to stop and let the North Koreans board. The order was refused. The Pueblo headed further out to sea. The North Korean boats immediately opened fire. Armed with only a 50-caliber gun secured from the freezing temperatures by a tarp, the Pueblo was unable to fight back.
With more North Korean boats appearing on radar and heading its way, the Pueblo had no choice but surrender — the first U.S. Navy ship since 1807 to be captured by a foreign power.
One Pueblo crew member was killed in the attack; the remaining 82 spent 11 months in a prison camp before being released. The Pueblo remains in North Korea — a trophy for Pyongyang and a thorn in the side for the United States.
The haunting mystery about the Pueblo attack is Pyongyang’s motivation. North Korea claimed Pueblo crossed into its territorial waters, but that was untrue.
The real answer may lie elsewhere. Observations by North Korea’s highest ranking defector — Hwang Jong Yop — in a recent interview with me, and information I obtained about a secret U.S.-North Korean air war in which the United States was unwittingly involved months prior to the Pueblo’s capture may shed light on Pyongyang’s real motivation.
The Pueblo’s mission had been assessed as involving minimal risk. There were no indicators a military attack might be imminent when the vessel sailed.
Mr. Hwang reports the attack was planned by Pyongyang without consultation with its allies. North Korean dictator Kim Il-sung and his military leadership carefully sought to target easy prey. But as to motivation, Mr. Hwang could offer no insights. The discovery of North Korea’s secret, and short, participation in the Vietnam War nine months earlier may, therefore, be relevant.
In interviews with former North Vietnamese pilots, I learned Pyongyang pressured the Vietnamese, in early 1967, to send North Korean pilots to secretly fight the Americans. Though reluctant, North Vietnam eventually agreed. However, every North Korean pilot who engaged a U.S. pilot was shot down.
Since the North Koreans flew North Vietnamese aircraft, these losses were costly to Hanoi, which sent the North Koreans home after two months of such “assistance.”
The Vietnamese pilots reported their North Korean counterparts failed because they insisted on fighting the Americans the same way they fought them in the Korean War. Technology and tactics had changed — but they could not adjust. A cemetery just outside of Hanoi, holding the remains of 14 North Korean pilots, attests to the ultimate price paid by those unable to make the adjustment.
This brief, but poor, performance by the North Korean military during the Vietnam War clearly caused Kim Il-sung to lose face.
Not only had the North Koreans failed to shoot down a single U.S. aircraft, losing 14 of their own pilots, they also had been unceremoniously sent packing by their North Vietnamese allies. Something had to be done to atone for this loss of face.
Undoubtedly, Pyongyang saw an ideal opportunity with minimal risk in the periodic deployments of lightly armed U.S. intelligence ships to international waters just off the North Korean coast. There an isolated vessel was well outside the protective umbrella of quick-response U.S. sea and air assets.
Indications are that 38 years ago the Pueblo unfortunately may have been in the wrong place at the wrong time when Kim Il-sung sought to regain face at America’s expense.
James G. Zumwalt, a Marine veteran of the Persian Gulf and Vietnam wars, is a contributor to The Washington Times.