PYONGYANG, North Korea — North Korea’s greatest propaganda trophy, a captured U.S. Navy spy ship, floats along the banks of the Taedong River, beckoning visitors aboard to see how this country once humiliated the United States. It's the USS Pueblo, whose captain surrendered without firing a shot to North Korea in 1968.
Now a major tourist attraction, the vessel has become a floating symbol of anti-Americanism and the Cold War era. It draws some 1,000 people a day in organized tours designed to drum up patriotism.
“It was a great victory for the Korean people to capture this ship,” said Li Gyong-il, a tour guide dressed in a crisp taupe military uniform.
Even as tourists clamber aboard, inspecting bullet and shrapnel holes circled in bright red paint, poking into the captain’s quarters and taking the wheel on the bridge, the fate of the Pueblo is again in play. Several U.S. legislators have demanded its return, and North Korea hinted as recently as April of such a possibility as part of six-nation talks to dismantle the nation’s nuclear weapons program.
If the 177-foot vessel generates intense pride in North Korea, feelings also run strong in the United States, especially among survivors of the 82 crew members who were captured 39 years ago. During 11 months in captivity, they endured beatings and deprivation before a deal was struck to let them cross to freedom in South Korea.
“There’s just a tremendous amount of bitterness on the part of the crew,” said Stu Russell, a former reservist aboard the vessel who now lives in Eureka, Calif. “We’ve had a couple of suicides and a higher-than-normal divorce rate. We go through it every night. It doesn’t go away.”
Another former Pueblo crewmember said he longs for the ship’s return.
“I would love to see that ship sail into San Diego harbor. I’d just salute it,” said Ralph McClintock, one of several dozen communications specialists posted aboard the spy ship when it was captured.
Temperatures were frigid on the Sea of Japan on Jan. 23, 1968, when three North Korean torpedo boats and a sub chaser circled the USS Pueblo at gunpoint and ordered its surrender. The United States later claimed that the ship, disguised as a marine research vessel, was outside North Korean territorial waters, a claim Pyongyang contested.
When the Pueblo crew started evasive maneuvers, the North Koreans fired machine guns, killing one U.S. seaman. Fearing a massacre aboard the lightly armed vessel, Cmdr. Lloyd “Pete” Bucher ordered it into port at Wonsan as crewmembers tried — with little success — to destroy the abundant intelligence material aboard.
“We were told we’d be executed. We were bound up, blindfolded and beaten,” recalled McClintock, 63, who's now a television producer in Jericho, Vermont.
The beatings grew worse months later after the North Koreans discovered that the crewmen had staged a ruse. While assembled for propaganda photos, many of the crew offered middle-finger salutes to the camera.
“We had a cover story,” Russell said. “We said it was the Hawaiian good-luck sign. They bought off on it.”
The photo was published in a U.S. newsmagazine with an explanation of the real meaning of the gesture, enraging the North Koreans.
Tourists boarding the Pueblo today enter the galley to watch an 18-minute video, narrated in strident tones with rousing martial music in the background, that recounts how the ship was seized — by dealing “severe punishment to U.S. imperialist aggressors.”
By the end of the ordeal, when the captives were allowed to leave North Korea just before Christmas 1968, “the enemy knelt down before the Korean people” and the outcome sent a signal to the world, the video says.
“The aggressors who lorded it over everywhere in the world were driven out by our country. They returned without even turning their faces, without any dignity of the United States,” it says.
Li, the tour guide, ushers visitors past lockers pocked with bullet holes and into interior electronic monitoring and cryptography chambers bearing shelves of secure communications equipment with red labels that say “Top Secret -- Prohibited.”
“Thirty-four spies were on duty day and night to wiretap and spy on the important state and military information of our country,” she said.
Much as Soviet trawlers laden with electronic listening gear patrolled the coasts of the Western world in that era, U.S. naval vessels thinly disguised as civilian ships sought to eavesdrop on the communist world.
Within days of the Pueblo’s capture, Soviet KGB officers are believed to have whisked some of the documents, codebooks and listening gear from the ship to Moscow.
For decades, the North Koreans kept the Pueblo docked in Wonsan, the port near the point of capture. But in 1999, they ran their own flag up the mast and sailed the ship for nine days in international waters to Pyongyang. Why U.S. naval forces based in South Korea and Japan didn't move in to seize the ship then hasn't been explained.
Russell, the former crew member, said senior Pentagon naval officers told a retired Pueblo commander that “they were told, ‘Hands off.’ Let them move the ship.”
Some of the history surrounding the USS Pueblo’s capture has yet to emerge, said Russell, who's filed numerous Freedom of Information Act requests seeking records from the Defense and State departments and the National Archives, to little avail. “It’s not all on the table yet,” he said.
The Pueblo has never been decommissioned by the Navy and remains the only active-duty vessel in enemy hands.
North Korea has hinted at least twice that it would be willing to repatriate the Pueblo, first to Donald Gregg, a former U.S. ambassador to South Korea and top aide to President George H.W. Bush, in 2005 and then this April to New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who toured the ship.
Afterward, the State Department denied that a formal offer had been made and said that the USS Pueblo “should be returned to the United States.” North Korea’s seizure of the vessel and its detention of the crew were “in violation of international law.”
Aboard the vessel, there is no hint of any return to U.S. hands.
The video declares that the ship’s presence in Pyongyang “will testify century after century (of) the crimes of aggression played by U.S. imperialists against the Korean people.”
Li, the tour guide, added: “If we sent back the ship, it would be a crime to the Korean people.”