Kim Jung Rok is a North Korean hero. As a young sailor, in 1968, he led the boarding party that captured the USS Pueblo off the east coast of North Korea. Today he is a much decorated Senior Colonel and in charge of the USS Pueblo – even though it remains a commissioned ship in the US Navy.
As the only US ship to be captured since 1941, the USS Pueblo is a much prized ‘trophy’ of North Korea, and many foreign visitors are taken to meet Colonel Kim so that he can recount his story of how the USS Pueblo was captured. The US maintains that the ship was in international waters, but the North Koreans say it had entered North Korean waters on a spy mission. Colonel Kim told me how the ship had been challenged, and after it had tried to “run away” how they had fired 55mm cannons at it to make it stop (he showed me the holes made by the shells in the ship’s superstructure). He said that after a second attempt to avoid capture, machine guns were fired into the hull, which killed one of the American sailors on board. The ship then surrendered and he showed me where he had boarded the ship and how he found the captain trying to hide against the bulkhead of the bridge. Colonel Kim said that when they boarded the ship the sailors were trying to burn all the documents and destroy the cipher machines, but most of them were saved and the North Koreans passed much of the information onto the Soviets who were able to use it to break the codes being used by the US Navy at the time.
North Korea demanded an official apology from the US stating that otherwise the 82 captured sailors would be tried for espionage, which carried the death penalty in North Korea. Initially the US denied that the ship was on a spy mission, but after 11 months of threats and counter-threats, President Lyndon Johnson admitted it had been spying and the US issued a formal written apology. After the sailors were released, the US retracted its apology, but the written apology is still kept today in a glass case on the USS Pueblo for visitors to see.
In 1999, the North Koreans moved the USS Pueblo to the west coast of North Korea by sailing it through international waters between Korea and Japan, “right under the noses of the American imperialists” Colonel Kim gleefully told me. North Korea has offered to return the USS Pueblo to the US on several occasions in return for the lifting of some economic sanctions, but no agreement has been reached to date.
When I finished my tour of the USS Pueblo, I was asked to sign the visitors’ book. The last entry was from about a month before and was written by CNN’s senior Asia correspondent, Mike Chinoy (an American), who had diplomatically described his visit as “interesting”,