Lessons From a Spy Ship’s Seizure

President Johnson conferring with Robert McNamara, his defense secretary, about North Korea’s seizure of a Navy spy ship, the Pueblo, in 1968.

Near the end of Lyndon Johnson’s presidency, North Korea undertook an extraordinary gamble against the United States, attacking and capturing a Navy spy ship, the Pueblo.

Six gunboats and two jets pounced on the Pueblo off North Korea’s rugged eastern coast as it tried to pinpoint radar and other military installations. One American sailor died in the Jan. 23, 1968, attack; 82 others were imprisoned.

The unexpected assault on the surveillance ship 50 years ago this week set off an international crisis that tested Johnson’s nerves and brought the United States closer to conflict with North Korea than at any time since the Korean War erupted in 1950.

In Washington, North Korea’s action precipitated cries for vengeance. “There can be only one answer for America — retaliation, retaliation, retaliation!” bellowed L. Mendel Rivers, the South Carolina Democrat who led the House Armed Services Committee.

But the president, his hands full with the Vietnam War, didn’t give in to pressure to use force. The last thing he wanted was a second war in Asia. Instead, he pursued 11 months of frustrating but ultimately successful diplomacy. In the end the 82 American captives came home alive.

A half-century on, Johnson’s patience and measured responses in the face of extreme incitement by the North Koreans offer lessons for American policymakers as they confront a far more dangerous North Korea, now armed with nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.

In the late 1960s, as they continue to do today, American ships, submarines, aircraft, satellites and human agents kept an eye on actual and potential enemies worldwide. In January 1968, some 800 international surveillance missions were carried out by the United States. But spying on foreign countries is an inherently provocative act. Risky operations can backfire badly, as was the case with the Pueblo.

Tensions had risen sharply on the Korean Peninsula even before the ship’s seizure when, on Jan. 21, North Korean commandos slipped into Seoul with orders to decapitate South Korea’s president, Park Chung-hee. The raid was thwarted when a suspicious police officer challenged the heavily armed intruders just 1,000 yards from President Park’s official residence, the Blue House, as they marched toward it disguised in South Korean uniforms.

Both Koreas put their forces on red alert. The North mobilized 16 army reserve divisions and military jets crisscrossed its skies. A badly rattled President Park began drinking heavily and contemplating a major counterattack.

President Johnson faced a fiendish tangle of problems: He had to restrain Seoul and Pyongyang from locking horns in a war that could quickly engulf thousands of American troops in South Korea, dissuade President Park from withdrawing crack South Korean troops fighting in Vietnam to reinforce his vulnerable home front, and get the captive Pueblo sailors back before the Communists executed them.

He began by rattling his saber as loudly as possible, both to intimidate the North and reassure the South. He rushed the aircraft carrier Enterprise and 25 other warships into the Sea of Japan, within easy range of North Korea, and 360 combat aircraft to bases in and near South Korea.

The Pentagon prepared plans to hit the North with nuclear weapons if it invaded the South. Under one scheme, eerily code-named Operation Freedom Drop, B-52s would incinerate Communist troops and armor with atomic bombs. Another plan envisioned destruction of the entire North Korean air force — nearly 500 aircraft — with round-the-clock airstrikes.

But Johnson chose not to bloody his saber, and thereby exposed himself to charges of weakness. (An outraged New Jersey man sent him a one-word telegram — “Coward” — and a Milwaukee newspaper sarcastically suggested that America’s national symbol be changed from an eagle to a chicken.)

The president believed the wiser course was a diplomatic one. His United Nations ambassador called for debate on the Pueblo in the Security Council, creating a rationale for delaying military action. To hold the South Korean president in check, Johnson gave him a cornucopia of military equipment, including two Navy destroyers.

In February, United States and North Korean negotiators began meeting secretly at Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone. The talks dragged on for months as the North Koreans insisted on an American apology for the Pueblo’s “espionage” in their territorial waters. (Washington said the ship was on a legitimate military mission in international waters.) The Americans offered various alternatives short of a formal apology, but the Communists stuck to their demand.

The North Koreans flung insults and the chief American negotiator, a cigar-puffing Navy admiral, contemptuously blew smoke rings at them.

The impasse finally ended when the wife of a State Department official suggested that the United States sign the apology but only after publicly denouncing it as false. Some in Washington thought her idea for a “pre-repudiated” mea culpa was crazy. But Pyongyang accepted it and freed the Pueblo sailors, who had endured beatings, starvation and other torments. The crewmen flew to San Diego, landing on Christmas Eve 1968 as thousands cheered.

One wonders if President Trump possesses sufficient reserves of patience and restraint to cope with North Korea’s provocation today.

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