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07.03.2021 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

An Unpleasant Reminder of the US Defeat


On February 25, 2021, the United States District Court for the District of Columbia ordered North Korea to pay 2.3 billion USD in compensation for damages to the crew of the USS Pueblo, which was hijacked in 1968. The American side claims that a marine research vessel was seized that was in international waters at the time of the incident. One of the 83 crew members was killed, and the rest were released after 11 months while “incessantly subjected to mental and physical abuse during their captivity”.

This process became possible after the US Congress passed the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act in 2016, which allows lawsuits in these kinds of high-profile cases to be heard in federal courts. For the lawsuit to be accepted, the country must be on the appropriate list, and the DPRK wounded up there after Pyongyang was accused of murdering Kim Jong-nam, and the story with Otto Warmbier occurred.

Back in 2018, 49 crew members that are currently alive, and the families of the rest, demanded compensation for damages related to how they were held hostage. According to the opinion delivered by the court, “this case arises from the kidnapping, imprisonment, and torture of United States servicemen aboard the USS Pueblo by agents of the government of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea”. “In granting the plaintiffs’ motion for default judgment on liability, the Court concluded that North Korea was liable to the plaintiffs under this provision and its incorporated theories of assault, battery, false imprisonment, intentional infliction of emotional distress, solatium, and wrongful death”.

Each of the living crew members was awarded compensation in an amount ranging from 22 to 48 million dollars, and the family members of the crew member that was killed, and those that were deceased, received compensation in smaller amounts. In total, the court ruling obliges North Korea to pay out about 2.3 billion dollars: 1.15 billion dollars is the amount of compensation, and about that same amount represents a “fine”.

The South Korean media compared this decision to a 2019 verdict, when that same district court ordered North Korea to pay 500 million USD in damages to the parents of American student Otto Warmbier. It is worth reiterating that he died in 2017, six days after he returned home from being released from captivity in North Korea. In both cases there was allegedly unlawful imprisonment involved, effectively meaning hostage taking, torture, etc., although the author is once again forced reiterate that American doctors and coroners could not find any traces of torture or ill treatment on the student’s body.

Mark Bravin, lead attorney for the plaintiffs, told USNI News today that the damages awarded are among the largest ever awarded in a state-sponsored terrorism case.

Chief Cryptologic Technician Don Peppard, a surviving crew member and president of the USS Pueblo Veterans’ Association, said in a press release, “even though we didn’t expect anything, it is a relief to be recognized for what we went through. Maybe now it is finally settled, and we can move forward.”

The ruling, however, will remain symbolic, since Pyongyang does not respond to verdicts delivered by foreign courts.  Therefore, compensation will be paid out, but in 2022, and from a special U.S. Victims of State-Sponsored Terrorism Fund created by the US Congress. The money for the fund comes from the fines and penalties imposed on individuals and corporations in these countries.

In this light, the American sailors look like unfortunate victims – almost like deceased students, only in uniform. But just like in the Warmbier case, there is the official version put forth by the United States, and then there is reality.

The USS Pueblo “was converted into an environmental research ship”, and in late 1967 set out on its maiden voyage to gather intelligence in Asian waters. As photographs show, it was chock full of the most cutting-edge intelligence-gathering equipment for that time, with both encryption and data collection devices.

The story of the capture of the USS Pueblo on January 23, 1968, and the subsequent crisis, is described well in the article by V.P. Tkachenko (Lessons from the Korean Crisis of 1968. // Problems of the Far East – 2008. – No 1. – pp. 82-102.), And, if you believe the North Korean version, the USS Pueblo invaded the territorial waters of the DPRK 17 times, and that one time it plunged deeper that 7.5 miles in them. The vessel tried to escape into neutral waters and shoot back, but North Korean patrol boats caught up and surrounded it. The battle could have lasted for a very long time (later on, dozens of small arms, anti-aircraft machine guns, tens of thousands of cartridges and grenades, etc. were seized on the vessel), but one of the first hits by a North Korean heavy machine gun struck the ammunition depot, and killed one of the crew members. A chain of explosions began. The Americans decided that the ship was seriously damaged, and Captain Lloyd Bucher decided to surrender.

On January 26, 1968, at a press conference in Pyongyang, the captain of the USS Pueblo admitted that the ship’s crew was engaged in espionage in North Korean waters, although American propaganda asserts that the ship’s captain made the confession under torture – and threats to execute the entire crew in front of him. However, the outcome of an investigation revealed that the ship belonged to the US Pacific Fleet, and its crew was doing work according to plans from the Central Intelligence Agency, conducting reconnaissance on the military facilities and coastal waters along the Soviet Union’s Far East, the coastline of North Korea, and China.  As can be seen from published maps, extracts from the ship’s log, and secret documents that they did not manage to destroy after the vessel was detained, the USS Pueblo repeatedly violated the territorial waters around not only the DPRK, but also the USSR.

The incident resulted in one dead and nine injured American crew members and, in response to such a “direct attack on the United States”, on January 24, 1968, the American representative to the Military Armistice Commission in Korea demanded the immediate return of the ship and its crew, as well as an apology for interning them in neutral waters. In response, the North Korean side demanded an apology from the United States, and it turned out that none of the conflicting parties considered their actions to be unlawful. The Americans insisted that the seizure of the ship took place outside the accepted 12-mile border demarcating territorial waters, and therefore it was an arbitrary act. The North Korean side justified its actions by the fact that this case had nothing to do with the issue of the width taken up by territorial waters, since the vessel entered the country’s bay, which is considered domestic waters according to international law. In addition, it cited its own government decree dated March 5, 1955, in which (along with establishing the width of its territorial waters) a significant part of the East Korea Bay, where the USS Pueblo was detained, was declared to be DPRK domestic waters. On top of that, at the time the vessel was seized the North did not think to accurately fix the point where the process ended for detaining a vessel that was heading out to open sea – leaving the issue open-ended – unlike the fact established that the ship was captured on its out of the North’s territorial waters, and the fact that an incursion had taken place.

On January 25, 1968, President L. Johnson announced the urgent mobilization of a total of 14,600 personnel in the US air force and naval reserves. American and South Korean troops were put on extreme alert.  Responding to this, the DPRK declared that they were ready for war, and the situation began to rapidly escalate.

On January 30, 1968, the DPRK officially petitioned Moscow with a proposal to immediately provide the DPRK with military and other assistance, using all the means at the disposal of the USSR, if Korea were to go to war. And although Soviet diplomats found the opportunity to explain that the USSR would not automatically be included in the conflict, tensions remained high throughout the crisis.

Actually, because of this, the seizure of the Pueblo is sometimes interpreted as a cunning plan on the part of North Korea to enter into direct negotiations with the Americans, bringing them up to the government level – and this would have meant de facto recognition of the DPRK. According to proponents of this version, the threat to destroy prisoners in the event of an armed invasion was supposed to further push the United States to negotiations.   However, there is no direct evidence that such a plan existed.

And the fate of the ship and its crew was decided during negotiations within the framework of the Military Armistice Commission in Korea.  On February 15, 1968, the Americans promised to think about making an apology if the returning sailors corroborated the fact that the ship had been detained in the North’s territorial waters, and a day later the United States would order its ships to adhere to a 12-mile zone off the coast of the DPRK. In response, on February 20 the Korean side announced its intention to put the American sailors on trial, but did not do this, taking into account their active repentance.

On May 8, 1968, a DPRK representative proposed his own version of the final document, which read: “The government of the United States of America, confirming the validity of the confessions made by the crew of the American vessel USS Pueblo, and of the documentary evidence presented by a representative of the government of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea regarding the fact that the ship, which was hijacked in self-defense measures taken by the warships of the Korean People’s Army in territorial waters of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea on January 23, 1968, repeatedly invaded the territorial waters of the DPRK, and was engaged in reconnaissance work on important DPRK military and state secrets, takes full responsibility for this, and formally apologizes for the fact that the American ship invaded the territorial waters of the DPRK, and committed significant intelligence-gathering activities against the DPRK, and gives an unwavering guarantee that American ships will no longer invade the territorial waters of the DPRK. However, the US government, taking into account the fact that the members of the former crew for the American ship USS Pueblo, detained by the DPRK side, openly confessed to their crimes, and made appeals to the DPRK government, urges the DPRK government to show leniency towards the crew members”.

An American representative had to sign the specified document on behalf of the US government, which was done on December 23, 1968, exactly eleven months after the crew was interred.  After this formality, the American general gave a spoken statement that the United States did not recognize this document, but the 82 crew members, and the body of the one killed sailor, were returned home. North Korea added that there was information in the American media that either the entire crew, or all the officers, had been executed. After that, on the one hand, the crew itself decided that they were being sold out, and on the other hand the North Koreans published an open letter on behalf of the crew, and began to threaten a public trial at which evidence of their espionage activities would be presented to the whole world. As a result, the incident with the USS Pueblo is positioned as the only case when the United States not only admitted to spying, but also officially apologized.

They do not report how after the ship was released Captain Bucher went on trial – he and some of the officers were accused of a) surrendering the most valuable ship with little or no resistance, and b) giving up information that forced Washington to apologize after it was divulged. It was also asserted that one of the prosecution’s arguments was the absence of any obvious signs of torture.

The ship itself was docked for a long time in the port of Wŏnsan, and attracted tourists, and in 2002 North Korea was even going to give it to the US government as a gesture of goodwill, but right then the second round of the nuclear crisis happened. After that, the ship was transported to Pyongyang and made into the main exhibit at the North Korean Museum of Victory in the “Patriotic War”. There is a legend that, since it was impossible to ship it by railway transport, it was sent in a roundabout way by water, disguised as a fishing trawler, and the person who organized this received the title of Hero of the Republic.  Some also say that the Americans wanted to intercept this ship, but could not.

So the verdict delivered by the American court is actually not a triumph of justice, but a very unpleasant memory – at least for anyone who bothers to study the issue in a little more depth.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of the Far East at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook“.


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