Bucher's Final Plea: Return the Pueblo

“The Pueblo, the spy ship, is a vivid, living example of the hostile policies of the United States toward the Democratic Republic of Korea.”

So said a smiling Col. Pak In Ho on April 9 as he escorted the U.S. delegation to North Korea led by New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and former Secretary of Veterans Affairs Anthony Principi on the standard tour for Americans visiting Pyongyang:  that of the U.S.S. Pueblo, the intelligence-gathering ship seized by North Korea 24 miles off its East coast on January 28, 1968.  Although the crew of 82 was released after eleven months of torture and a forced confession of espionage, the Communist dictatorship in Pyongyang kept the ship for propaganda purposes.

Americans who return from Pyongyang inevitably talk of seeing the decommissioned Pueblo, which North Korean strongman Kim Jong Il has said will remain docked in the Taedong River as part of “anti-American education.”  As Rep. Mark Kirk (R.-Ill) told me in ’01 as he recalled a trip to Pyongyang while a congressional staffer a few years earlier, "The Pueblo is today a tourist attraction.  They drag it around the harbor on their regular ‘anti-U.S. imperialism celebration."

Richardson and Principi, who were in Pyongyang as part of a mission to recover the remains of American servicemen killed in the Korean War, voiced discomfort with the forced tour of the Pueblo and the scenario of a captured U.S. ship used for anti-American propaganda after thirty-nine years.  As Principi, himself a U.S. naval officer when the ship was seized, told reporters: “It’s very unpleasant to hear of the assertion of continued aggression.”

One who felt particularly passionate about the Pueblo was someone I interviewed and got to know:  the ship’s skipper, retired Lieutenant Commander Lloyd Bucher, who vividly recalled the torture he and his crew experienced during the eleven months after their lightly armed ship carrying sensitive equipment was seized.

Almost immediately upon his incarceration, Bucher was order by his captors to sign a confession that the Pueblo had violated North Korean territorial waters.  This he refused to do — even when a gun was put to his head and he was placed before a firing squad, which abruptly stopped its procedure after “Ready, aim. . .”

“But then I did sign it when they told me they would execute my crew before my eyes from the youngest to the oldest,” Bucher told me in 2001.  He then made a radio “confession” that was broadcast worldwide.  But to signal that he was “confessing” against his will, Bucher cleverly punned on and misused the word “paean” — a hymn of praise — in his broadcast.  “I deliberately mispronounced it,” he told me, “I said ‘we pee on the North Korean state, se pee on their great leader Kim Ill Sung.  The North Koreans never picked up on it.”

When Pyongyang released a photo of the Pueblo crew members for American audiences, added Bucher, “[the Communists] never noticed that several of them were also making an obscene gesture with their fingers.  They had never seen the "Hawaiian good luck sign."
The Pueblo skipper also signaled his own election year disgust with the Johnson Administration and Democratic politicians at home in a letter to wife Rose, telling her he hoped “[conservative columnist] William Buckley’s boys win in November.”  (Bucher was particularly upset with the Johnson Administration’s failure to arm his ship with anything more than two .50 caliber machine guns or equip it with the proper machinery for destroying classified material in the event of capture.  As he told me, “I had to go out and buy my own paper incinerator.”  

He also bitterly described the sadistic torture he and his crew endured before the Johnson Administration agreed to sign an admission of “full responsibility” for the “grave acts committed by the U.S. ship against North Korea.” (something the Administration completely disavowed and said it was signing “to free the crew and only to free the crew.")  One member of the crew had been killed when the ship was seized but the other 82 crewmen were finally released on December 24, 1968.  The apology’s disavowal was snipped off by the North Koreans and used for propaganda purposes.  

Thirty-nine years later, and three years after Lloyd Bucher’s death at age 76, the Pueblo itself is still used for propaganda purposes and as a symbol of what its skipper dubbed “the U.S. getting down on its knees and kissing the Communist boots.”

As the U.S. prepares to assist North Korea in terms of its peaceful use of nuclear power, is it not too much to ask that they return the Pueblo? Perhaps Bill Richardson and Tony Principi might just be the ones to make the request.  As Lloyd Bucher told me, “If we are going to aid people like this, at the very least we should insist that they return a ship that is still on Navy rolls and is still sovereign U.S. property.”