Ship Named After Pueblo Could Play Role in Trump's Negotiations With Kim Jong-un

A North Korean propaganda photo of several of the captured crewmembers — one of whom is flashing the middle finger.
A North Korean propaganda photo of several of the captured crewmembers — one of whom is flashing the middle finger. Courtesy of Alvin Plucker
This week is an important one for United States-North Korea relations. Following up on the first-ever meeting between the leaders of America and North Korea, in June 2018, Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un are back at it for another round of historic negotiations.

For America, the negotiations are all about de-nuclearizing the Communist nation. Kim, on the other hand, is likely to be vying for relief from the devastating economic sanctions that the U.S. and the United Nations Security Council have imposed on his country over its nuclear arsenal.

Experts argue that the chances of Trump negotiating a deal of that magnitude are slim. But that doesn't mean he'll leave empty-handed. On February 12, Congressman Scott Tipton, whose congressional district includes Pueblo, sent a letter to Trump asking the president to raise the issue of the USS Pueblo returning home in his negotiations with Kim.

"The time has come for the Pueblo to return home to the United States," Tipton wrote. Tipton sent Trump a similar request before his first summit with Kim, though it's unclear whether the Pueblo came up in that meeting.

Named after the city and county in Colorado, the USS Pueblo has been a blight on U.S.-North Korea relations since January 23, 1968.

On that cold, gray day, the Pueblo was cruising off the coast of North Korea. Its purpose was simple: to identify  radio signals and radar emission locations. That way, in the event of another war between the U.S. and North Korea, American forces could take out these stations, according to Jack Cheevers, author of Act of War: Lyndon Johnson, North Korea, and the Capture of the Spy Ship Pueblo.

"It was the height of the Vietnam War. There was a lot going on," says Cheevers. "But the Navy never really expected the Pueblo to run into any trouble."

There wasn't much worry among military leaders that the ship would run into any trouble, says La Salle resident Alvin Plucker, who was one of the 83 USS Pueblo crew members. "The mission was minimal risk," he recalls.

click to enlarge The USS Pueblo in Puget Sound during a trial run in 1967. - U.S. NAVY
The USS Pueblo in Puget Sound during a trial run in 1967.
U.S. Navy
"It had been an Army cargo ship that was delivering coconuts and pigs around the South Pacific after World War II. The Navy hastily converted it into a spy ship in 1966," says Cheevers. That means that it only had a few deck guns.

Cruising along on that fateful January day, the Pueblo, which was only a few days from completing its three-week mission, got involved in events that would carve out the ship and the crew's place in history.

But what, exactly, happened depends on whom you ask. The U.S. contends that the ship was more than fifteen miles off the North Korean coast, thus placing it in international waters. North Korea claims the ship illegally entered its territory.

In the afternoon, the Pueblo's intercom jerked everyone to attention, sending all hands below deck. North Korean gunboats were approaching the Pueblo, and North Korean fighter jets were flying overhead.

If the North Koreans were expecting an immediate surrender, they were mistaken. American Navy ships either fight or flee, and the ship's captain, Lloyd Bucher, chose the latter.

The Pueblo charted its course toward the open sea and hit full speed ahead. But the glorified cargo ship didn't stand much of a chance. The North Korean boats were able to reach a max speed that was over three times that of the Pueblo, according to Cheevers.

click to enlarge Alvin Plucker on December 23, 1968, just after crossing into South Korea. - COURTESY OF ALVIN PLUCKER
Alvin Plucker on December 23, 1968, just after crossing into South Korea.
Courtesy of Alvin Plucker
Since the Pueblo didn't surrender, the North Koreans began shooting and shelling the American ship. Nineteen-year-old Duane Hodges was killed as a result of this gunfire, the lone fatality, though many crew members were wounded. The injuries began to add up, so the ship's captain made the decision that every American seaman dreads.

Bucher turned off his ship's engines and surrendered.

The ship was then boarded by North Korean forces, who took the crew to mainland North Korea, where they spent the next eleven months suffering through imprisonment and torture. The crew survived by using humor — particularly the middle finger — to keep things light.

Finally, following negotiations between North Korea and the U.S., the crew members were released in December 1968 and made it home just in time for Christmas.

But their ship stayed behind.

The Pueblo is moored in Pyongyang as part of North Korea's Victorious War Museum. Tourists and North Koreans can visit the ship and pose for pictures with it. And the United States and North Korea have remained enemies since the devastating war they fought against each other in the ’50s.

Tipton hopes that the ship can return home soon and become an American war memorial rather than a North Korean one.

"It's discouraging," Tipton says when asked about North Korean propaganda photos of the ship. "If Kim Jong-un is serious about normalizing relations with the United States, then the USS Pueblo must be returned."

Although Plucker has also been pushing to get the Pueblo back, he's not optimistic that the ship he served on will ever be returned. "The thing is, for North Korea, that's their number-one trophy ever. I don't think they'll ever give it up," he says.

click to enlarge Alvin Plucker in the museum he’s built in his basement devoted to the Pueblo incident. - ANTHONY CAMERA
Alvin Plucker in the museum he’s built in his basement devoted to the Pueblo incident.
Anthony Camera
Plucker says he and his fellow crew members have tried for years to get the ship returned, lobbying various presidential administrations over the decades. "We even communicated by telephone to Trump, and he wished us good luck," says Plucker.

Cheevers also wonders if the ship will ever come home. "I would love to see the ship come home...but I think the odds of them giving up a war memorial like that are very slim," he says.

But Jonathan D. Pollack, an expert on U.S.-North Korea relations and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, doesn't discount the return of the Pueblo as a result of the latest Trump/Kim negotiations.

"It would seem to me that the return of the Pueblo would be something that Trump would regard as a very, very big win for him," says Pollack, noting that Trump likely won't be able to achieve anything major regarding denuclearization. "It's possible [the North Koreans] would do it."

Pollack also notes that anti-American propaganda in North Korea is much less intense nowadays. "The level of vitriol toward the U.S. in [North Korean] media has dropped to almost infinitesimal levels."

Plucker, meanwhile, will watch the negotiations carefully. Returning the ship would offer the veteran some closure. He says that, should it return, there are plans in the works to anchor the ship on the section of the Arkansas River that runs through Pueblo.

"In order to get this cloud away, we gotta get the ship back," he says.
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Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports.