North Korea and the Pueblo
Feb 15th 2014, 8:52 by Banyan
HIGH on the agenda of John Kerry, America’s secretary of state, as he paid brief visits to Seoul and Beijing this week, was the perennial headache of how to deal with North Korea. It is probably small consolation that at least things are not as bad as they were in 1968. That was the year North Korea seized an American spy ship, the USS Pueblo, killing one crew member and torturing the 82 others it held hostage for nearly a year.
A fine new book, however, “Act of War: Lyndon Johnson, North Korea and the capture of the spy ship Pueblo”, is a reminder also of how little fundamental has changed in the North Korean regime since then. It is still not so much a rogue state as a gangster one, which maintains its power with unmatched brutality at home and sets its own rules abroad.
The book, by Jack Cheevers, a former reporter for the Los Angeles Times, is based on extensive interviews with the crew and others involved in the disaster and on newly declassified material. It is in part a painful human story of the suffering of the crew and in particular its captain, Lloyd M. (“Pete”) Bucher.
They endured terrible physical beatings at the hands of their captors and appalling conditions. And Bucher had to live with the humiliation of being the first American naval commander since 1807 to surrender his ship without a fight—and to a tinpot communist dictatorship, at that, with what Mr Cheevers calls “a bathtub navy”.
As a result North Korea gained access to a treasure trove of American secrets, which it presumably shared with its then ally, the Soviet Union. It was, nearly half a century before the revelations of Edward Snowden, what one historian of America’s National Security Agency called “everyone’s worst nightmare, surpassing in damage anything that had ever happened to the cryptologic community”.
The American debacle was the result of what seems extraordinary incompetence. The Pueblo “groaned under the weight of a small mountain of secret papers”, yet had no means of disposing quickly of them or of its state-of-the art electronic snooping kit. It was too lightly armed to defend itself, yet other ships and planes were too distant to come to its aid when it was hijacked off the North Korean coast. Just before the Pueblo arrived, North Korean radio had threatened “determined countermeasures” against American “spy boats”, and tension had risen when North Korean commandoes were intercepted in South Korea, on a failed mission to assassinate President Park Chung-hee. Yet the warning signs were ignored.
For North Korea, the affair was a triumph. Besides the intelligence windfall, it is still able to portray the capture as a triumph over the superpower, using the Pueblo as a tourist attraction. And it only freed the crew after receiving an abject and untrue American apology.
Two outrageous characteristics of North Korean behaviour in 1968 are still, as it were, official policy. One is a total disregard for international law. The Pueblo was in international waters. Since then North Korea has engaged in terrorist attacks against airliners and in third countries (such as Burma in 1983); in counterfeiting currency and smuggling drugs; in walking out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty; and, as recently as 2010, in sinking a South Korean naval ship.
Another is the skilful use of the fear of unacceptable escalation to get its way. Lyndon Johnson, at the height of the Vietnam war, was reluctant to open a second front in Korea, fearing that reprisals against the North might provoke it to attack the South, or indeed encourage President Park to invade the North. Now the North’s primitive nuclear arsenal gives its blackmail another deterrent edge. What Mr Cheevers writes about 1968 remains true: that the real danger on the peninsula is “miscalculation by one side about how the other would react to a serious provocation”.
A third aspect of North Korean behaviour then, however, may no longer be tenable. Before signing the humiliating American apology that secured the release of the Pueblo’s crew, the Americans made clear in public that they thought it was nonsense. This did not matter to the North Koreans, since their own people need never know about the “pre-repudiation”.
In dealing with North Korea now it is some comfort to think that its leaders can no longer be so sure their control of information is so impermeable. But then again, that might actually make them even more intransigent.
(Picture credit: AFP)