The Buzz

North Korea Almost Started a Nuclear War When It Captured a U.S. Spy Ship

Many of the Pueblo’s crew went on to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and lifelong physical injuries. Over time, however, the crewmembers put up their own website testifying to their experiences, successfully lobbied for status as prisoners of war after it was initially denied to them, and sued North Korea in U.S. court for their treatment. As for the Pueblo itself, technically the second oldest ship still commissioned in the U.S. Navy, it remains in North Korean custody to this day. It is currently moored off the Potong River in Pyongyang, where it serve as an exhibition of the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum.

A U.S. Army light freighter launched during World War II, the fifty-four-meter-long Pueblo had been recommissioned by the Navy in 1966s to serve as an “environmental research ship,” with two civilian oceanographers on board. This was a flimsy cover for the truth: the Pueblo was a spy ship, charged with intercepting and recording wireless transmissions and monitoring electronic emissions. Periodically, the Pueblo would transmit its findings using a sixteen-foot parabolic antenna on its deck to beam a signal towards the moon, where it would reflect back to the Earth for reception by Navy antennas in Hawaii and Maryland.

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The lightly armed and ponderous Pueblo—capable of a maximum speed of only thirteen knots (fifteen miles per hour)—was not supposed to place itself in real danger, however. Like other “technical research ships,” it could sail safely within international waters—no closer than twelve nautical miles from shore—and still listen in. The Soviet Union had its own spy ships, and so both sides of the Cold War had to tolerate the presence of the others’ electronic spies.

Today, signals intelligence remains a common form of espionage—and a basically legal one, so long as the ships involved do not stray into territorial waters and aircraft stick to international airspace. Recently, the Russian spy ship Viktor Leonov was observed thirty miles off the U.S. East Coast. U.S. Air Force RC-135 Rivet Joint aircraft routinely intercept signal traffic from North Korea and other nations. However, these electronic spies can only operate so long as the nations they are spying on respect the norms of international law—a risky proposition when tensions are high and the nation in question is governed by a capricious regime.

That January, the Pueblo was assigned by the NSA to intercept signal traffic from Soviet ships in the Tsushima Strait between Japan and Korea, and gather intel on North Korean coastal radars and radio stations. Her mission proceeded uneventfully until it encountered a North Korean subchaser (a corvette-sized vessel) on January 20. Two days later, it was spotted by two North Korean fishing trawlers, which passed within thirty meters of it. The Pueblo’s captain, Lt. Cmdr. Lloyd Bucher, informed the U.S. Navy and proceeded with the final phase of his mission.

Bucher was left unaware, however, that tensions between the two Koreas had just escalated dramatically. Near midnight on January 21, thirty-one disguised North Korean infiltrators came within one hundred meters of the South Korean presidential residence, the Blue House, in an attempt to assassinate President Park Chung-hee before being confronted and dispersed in a blaze of gunfire and exploding hand grenades. A shaken President Park put his troops on high alert and pressed for the United States to retaliate.

At noon on January 23, the Pueblo once again encountered another SO-1–class subchaser. The cannon-armed vessel closed on the Pueblo at high speed and challenged its nationality, to which Bucher raised the American flag. Next, the smaller boat transmitted: HEAVE TO OR I WILL FIRE. Bucher replied I AM IN INTERNATIONAL WATERS. In fact, the U.S. Navy stipulated that he keep his vessel several miles outside the boundary.

The subchaser’s captain was not satisfied, and continued to close on the Pueblo. Soon afterwards, two North Korean MiG-21 fighters swooped low over the 890-ton spy ship, and three P-4 torpedo boats joined the subchaser to surround the American vessel. Bucher turned the ponderous Pueblo around and made full speed eastward, managing to worm his ship away from a torpedo boat that attempted to land a boarding party toting AK-47s. The North Korean boats began raking the Pueblo with heavy machine-gun fire and blasting at it with the fifty-seven-millimeter cannon on the subchaser. Shrapnel sprayed across the bridge, wounding Bucher.