A Half-Century Later, Pueblo’s Crew Gets Their Day in Court

A U.S. judge awards $2.3 billion to the crew of the spy ship seized by North Korea and their families.

By , a senior correspondent at Foreign Policy.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un walks in front of the USS Pueblo
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un walks in front of the USS Pueblo
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un walks in front of the USS Pueblo, a U.S. navy technical research ship captured by North Korean forces in 1968, in Pyongyang on July 27, 2013. GILES HEWITT/AFP via Getty Images

Most Americans have long since forgotten the USS Pueblo incident, even if North Korea has not. The rusting hulk of the U.S. intelligence vessel seized by North Korea in 1968 is still moored near the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum in Pyongyang, marking what the regime regards as a historic moment for its great revolution. 

Now, like the contents of a shattered time capsule, the Pueblo has spilled back into the news, demonstrating how little has changed in the half-century of tensions that have defined relations between the United States and North Korea. On Wednesday, a federal district court in Washington awarded $2.3 billion in damages to Pueblo crew members and their families, among the most money ever awarded in a state-sponsored terrorism case.

On Jan. 23, 1968, North Korean patrol boats captured the Navy intelligence ship off its shores, firing on it as the crew dumped classified material, and wounding its commander, Lloyd Bucher, and two others. One man was killed. The 82 surviving members of the crew were bound, blindfolded, and taken to Pyongyang, where they were charged with spying, tortured, and imprisoned as hostages. The survivors were finally released after a humiliating apology—a written statement from the United States admitting the Pueblo was spying—and a U.S. vow not to spy on North Korea anymore. 

Most Americans have long since forgotten the USS Pueblo incident, even if North Korea has not. The rusting hulk of the U.S. intelligence vessel seized by North Korea in 1968 is still moored near the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum in Pyongyang, marking what the regime regards as a historic moment for its great revolution. 

Now, like the contents of a shattered time capsule, the Pueblo has spilled back into the news, demonstrating how little has changed in the half-century of tensions that have defined relations between the United States and North Korea. On Wednesday, a federal district court in Washington awarded $2.3 billion in damages to Pueblo crew members and their families, among the most money ever awarded in a state-sponsored terrorism case.

On Jan. 23, 1968, North Korean patrol boats captured the Navy intelligence ship off its shores, firing on it as the crew dumped classified material, and wounding its commander, Lloyd Bucher, and two others. One man was killed. The 82 surviving members of the crew were bound, blindfolded, and taken to Pyongyang, where they were charged with spying, tortured, and imprisoned as hostages. The survivors were finally released after a humiliating apology—a written statement from the United States admitting the Pueblo was spying—and a U.S. vow not to spy on North Korea anymore. 

The case, John Doe A-1 et al. v. Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, was filed on behalf of 61 former crew members and 110 family members three years ago after the Trump administration redesignated North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism in late 2017. Bucher’s estate and three of his crew originally filed suit in 2006, but the George W. Bush administration, while pursuing diplomacy with Pyongyang, took North Korea off the state-sponsor list two years later. Bucher died in 2004. 

The lead lawyer for the plaintiffs, Mark Bravin, told Foreign Policy that the courts have ruled there is effectively no statute of limitations because North Korea took no part in the legal case. The victims are expected to receive money from the Victims of State Sponsored Terrorism Fund enacted in 2015, which is financed by fines on companies or entities that have done business with designated terrorism-sponsoring states. In another notable case in 2016, victims of Iran’s seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979 and the 444-day imprisonment that followed were awarded about $2 billion from Iran’s central bank, drawn from funds in a Citibank account. 

According to North Korea’s official mythology, the Pueblo seizure was justifiable as a wartime move. Bravin says that’s nonsense. “When you’re familiar with the facts of what happened, what they did to these crew members was barbaric,” he said. “It’s very well documented in our complaint, and it’s been the subject of books. It was horrible. One of the crew members was in close proximity to the sailor that died and was hit by shrapnel that cut him up badly in the middle. The North Koreans put him in a room by himself, where he faced horrors such as infection and worms crawling in his body. It was beyond belief.”

Some North Korea experts believe the incident emboldened Pyongyang, then led by Kim Il Sung, the grandfather of current leader Kim Jong Un, to become increasingly aggressive in its foreign policy toward the United States, culminating in the development of its nuclear and missile program.

“It is part of the North’s narrative of national greatness,” said Michael Green of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a former director of Asian affairs on the National Security Council. “We’ll have to look at the archives when the regime is gone to understand whether it emboldened the North. My guess is that the seizing of the Pueblo and the lack of a U.S. military strike (we were busy in Vietnam at the time) probably became part of a pattern that taught the North Koreans how far they could push us without crossing the red line and risking war.”

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

More from Foreign Policy

A worker cuts the nose off the last Ukraine's Tupolev-22M3, the Soviet-made strategic aircraft able to carry nuclear weapons at a military base in Poltava, Ukraine on Jan. 27, 2006. A total of 60 aircraft were destroyed  according to the USA-Ukrainian disarmament agreement.
A worker cuts the nose off the last Ukraine's Tupolev-22M3, the Soviet-made strategic aircraft able to carry nuclear weapons at a military base in Poltava, Ukraine on Jan. 27, 2006. A total of 60 aircraft were destroyed according to the USA-Ukrainian disarmament agreement.

Why Do People Hate Realism So Much?

The school of thought doesn’t explain everything—but its proponents foresaw the potential for conflict over Ukraine long before it erupted.

Employees watch a cargo ship at a port in China, which is experiencing an economic downturn.
Employees watch a cargo ship at a port in China, which is experiencing an economic downturn.

China’s Crisis of Confidence

What if, instead of being a competitor, China can no longer afford to compete at all?

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell testifies in the U.S. Senate in Washington on Sept. 24, 2020.
Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell testifies in the U.S. Senate in Washington on Sept. 24, 2020.

Why This Global Economic Crisis Is Different

This is the first time since World War II that there may be no cooperative way out.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and Premier Li Keqiang applaud at the closing session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 11.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and Premier Li Keqiang applaud at the closing session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 11.

China Is Hardening Itself for Economic War

Beijing is trying to close economic vulnerabilities out of fear of U.S. containment.