New Romanian Evidence on the Blue House Raid and the USS Pueblo Incident

By
Mitchell Lerner and Jong-Dae Shin
USS Pueblo (AGER-2) in port, circa 1967 (Source: Naval Historical Center, photo #USN 1129296)
Contents
 

 

“This Warmongering State of Mind:”New Materials on the Korean Crisis of 1968 
 

By Mitchelll Lerner

 

As 1967 drew to a close, much of the world’s attention was focused on the conflict in Vietnam, where a series of prolonged battles along the border and a surprising buildup of communist forces in the area of Khe Sanh foreshadowed the growing violence that would explode in 1968. But Vietnam was not the only area of turmoil in Asia at that time. Voices from Korea were beginning to sound alarms as well about the growing hostilities on the peninsula. The relative tranquility along the 38th parallel that had marked the middle years of the decade was suddenly shattered by a wave of North Korean (DPRK) provocations in 1967. Military incidents across the peninsula increased from forty-two in 1965 to 286 in the first six-months of 1967 alone, and the American Joint Chiefs of Staff soon classified Korea as a hostile fire zone, making troops stationed in the area once again eligible for combat medals and awards.[1] Foreign officials in Korea fretted over this sudden explosion of violence. “Never,” wrote the East German Ambassador to North Korea in December 1967, “since the end of the Korean War, have there been so many and such severe incidents at the armistice line as in 1967.”[2]

This tension reached its peak in January 1968, threatening once again to plunge the world into a major conflagration in Korea. On January 21, thirty-one North Korean commandos launched an assassination attempt against South Korean (ROK) President Park Chung Hee at his official residence in Seoul, failing in their effort by only a narrow margin. Two days later, DPRK air and naval forces in the Sea of Japan attacked the USS Pueblo, an American spy ship that was collecting intelligence information near the North Korean coast. Pueblo, a slow, decrepit, and lightly armed supply vessel that had been retired for a decade before its reinstatement and conversion as part of Operation Clickbeetle in the 1960s, proved no match for its attackers, and Commander Pete Bucher quickly surrendered his ship. The Pueblo, with one man dead and many injured, was soon boarded by its attackers and towed into Wonsan Harbor.

For nearly one-year, the crew of the Pueblo was held in North Korean prison camps, where they were subjected to torture, abuse, and public humiliation. American threats and overt pressure were unable to convince Kim Il Sung to release the men under anything less than his terms, as did less overt but still significant urging from the Soviet Union. The prospect of war hovered over the peninsula. “If the DPRK does not accede to U.S. demands to return the ship and crew,” the Polish Ambassador to the DPRK warned, “We might probably witness an armed conflict here.”[3] Diplomatic efforts, through formal talks at the Military Armistice Commission in Panmunjom and informal contacts through intermediaries, dragged on until an unusual resolution was reached in December 1968. U.S. officials agreed to sign a document prepared by the DPRK admitting that the Pueblo had violated North Korean waters, apologizing for the transgression, and providing assurances that it would not happen again; this document, however, would first be publicly renounced by the American government, which declared that it was being signed “to free the crew and only to free the crew.”[4] A few hours after American Major General Gilbert Woodward signed the letter of apology, the Pueblo crew was released, and a second Korean War was avoided. “It has been proven once again that diplomacy is still not bankrupt,” celebrated the Berita Harian (Kuala Lumpur), “and that restraint in the face of a crisis such as this can benefit mankind.”[5]

The Romanian documents presented in this e-Dossier open an exciting new window into communist bloc policies and perspectives on both the Pueblo crisis and the broader issue of inter-bloc relations as a whole. In some cases the materials simply confirm what we already knew; in other cases they offer new details about what we suspected; and in still other cases they offer new insights that merit further exploration. Regardless of the specific nature of their contribution, however, the documents demonstrate above all else that no history of the Cold War can be considered complete without the sort of documents that the North Korea International Documentation Project and the Cold War International History Project are devoted to unearthing.

Perhaps most importantly, these documents confirm that the relationship between the USSR and the DPRK, which was already on the decline, suffered further damage as a consequence of Kim’s aggressive actions in 1968. The extent of this tension between the two nations would likely have come as a surprise to American policymakers at the time, many of whom were quick to assume that the Soviets had been consulted in advance of the attack.[6] Yet, as this e-Dossier makes clear, the Soviets were not only uninvolved in the planning but they were also exceedingly unhappy with both the attack itself and Kim’s unwillingness to accept an early resolution. “When we try to moderate this warmongering state of mind,” lamented one Soviet official, “our position is not taken into account” (Document No. 5See also Document No. 16 and Document No. 27). Little wonder, then, that at the April 1968 Plenum of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party, Party General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev harshly criticized North Korea harsh speech and made clear his unwillingness to get dragged into a war with the United States over the Pueblo.[7] Nor was the Soviet Union the only member of the socialist bloc who was unhappy with Kim’s actions. Romanian Ambassador Popa described the attempted assassination of President Park as “narrow-minded” and “seriously alarming” (Document No. 1). Even North Vietnam, which many in the US assumed was thrilled by Kim’s diversionary tactics, instead complained about numerous aspects of the seizure (Document No. 18 and Document No. 20).

The severity of the crisis, and the possibility of its escalation, is also clearly reflected in these materials, as officials on both sides of the Cold War worried about what the immediate future held. Ambassador Popa wrote to his superiors a few days after the Pueblo seizure that American “air force fighter units” stationed in Japan had been ordered to “take action against the DPRK if necessary, as long as the North Koreans do not release the captured American vessel” (Document No. 4). Soviet officials echoed this concern, with the Second Secretary of the Soviet Embassy in Pyongyang worrying that his nation might be “presented with a fait accompli, in the sense of the resumption of an all-out war” (Document No. 5). Others exposed to the crisis, including the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission at Panmunjom (Document No. 12) and a Czech diplomat (Document No. 27), also expressed such fears, ones that were no doubt exacerbated by the demands for action that rang out from across the Pacific Ocean. “Once,” wrote the Lynchburg (VA) News, “the American nation was led by men of courage and integrity. Now it is led by appeasers, liars, and cowards, who sneer at honor and truth as luxuries we can no longer afford.”[8] “I’d select a target,” declared one American senator. “I’d do like Truman did—let one of them disappear.”[9]

While the documents provided here do not answer the long-asked question about North Korea’s motivations for launching the wave of attacks, the documents do demonstrate that even the North’s allies were very much in the dark about Kim’s goals and strategies. The February 7, 1968, telegram from the Romanian Embassy in Pyongyang is particularly remarkable and revealing. The Romanian Embassy informed Bucharest that North Korean “malleability” had been on clear display one day earlier when it returned the bodies of two dead Pueblo crewmen to the United States and pledged to soon return others who had been wounded, two gestures that would have been more convincing if either had actually occurred (Document No. 15). (In fact, there was only one dead Pueblo crewman, whose body would be returned only in late December with the rest of the crew.) Historians thus searching for clues about the underlying source of the conflict can at least take some solace in the fact that Kim simply answered to no one, leaving even his allies scrambling to decipher his intentions. At different times, communist representatives implied that Kim was acting in tandem with a larger plan to reunify the country through force (Document No. 1); to generate domestic propaganda and to rally the North Korean people (Document No. 24); and to take advantage of U.S. involvement in Vietnam and improve his position vis-à-vis the South (Document No. 19). One supposition, however, that the South was equally to blame for provoking the conflicts, is clearly refuted by these materials: “We believe that the provocations which have emerged recently belong exclusively to the North Koreans,” explained Ambassador Popa (Document No. 2).

Other interesting topics are touched upon in less detail, ranging from the severity of the Sino-Soviet split (Document No. 5); to the potential mediating role of the United Nations (Document No. 10); to the inner workings of the Military Armistice Commission (Document No. 6Document No. 12, and Document No. 22); to the divisions emerging between the United States and South Korea (Document No. 15); and relations between China and North Korea (Document No. 28). Kim’s personality cult makes an occasional appearance in the e-Dossier (Document No. 17), as does the impact the incident had upon daily life inside of the DPRK (Document No. 23 and Document No. 24). Through the entire e-Dossier, though, runs the idea that Kim Il Sung held all the cards, and that, short of war, little could be done by either friend or foe to alter his agenda.

On December 24, the men of the USS Pueblo returned to San Diego. They were greeted with both a heroes’ welcome and, for some of them, a board of inquiry, letters of admonition, and a recommended court-martial that was averted only because of the public outcry. Quickly, the Korean crisis abated, and the world’s attention returned to Vietnam. Still, for almost two years, Korea had again teetered on the brink of a war, one whose consequences would have been particularly devastating. The documents enclosed here help us to better understand how and why those potential consequences were narrowly avoided.

 
The Sino-North Korean Alliance and Kim Il Sung’s Military Adventurism

 

 By Jong-Dae Shin

 

Why have North Korea’s leaders pursued policies of military adventurism and confrontation for the past fifty-years? Many explanations have been proposed, but without access to reliable information—namely, the internal documents of the North Korean government and the Korean Workers’ Party (KWP)—rendering a final judgment on this question has become nearly impossible.[10] Beyond the usual secretiveness of the North Korean political system, the KWP has often purposefully concealed and distorted its real intentions. Indeed, strategic ambiguity has been integral component to North Korea’s military adventurism.

This selection of twenty-eight Romanian documents, however, helps us to make sense of North Korea’s aims during at least two adventurist episodes, the Blue House Raid and the seizure of the USS Pueblo. Above all, the documents suggest that North Korea may have sent commandos into South Korea in mid-January 1968 and then seized the USS Pueblo in Wonsan Harbor on January 23 as a means to reinvigorate the then fragile Sino-North Korean alliance.

To be sure, Romanian diplomats also offered a number of different explanations for North Korea’s behavior in January 1968. In Document No. 24, the Romanian Ambassador N. Popa suggests that Kim Il Sung seized the USS Pueblo in order to revitalize revolutionary spirit in North Korea and strengthen the Juche ideology. By aggravating international tensions, Kim could conceal his regime’s domestic failures and at the same time prevent the emergence of any potential threat to his authority.[11]

The Romanian documents also highlight how Kim Il Sung’s aims vis-à-vis inter-Korean relations also motivated his military adventurism. Just as many South Korean authors have argued that the struggle between the two Koreas prompted the Blue House Raid, Document No. 1 and Document No. 19 also suggest that North Korea sought to undermine the Park Chung Hee administration and wreak havoc upon the South Korean economy.[12] Document No. 18 and Document No. 20 indicate that Kim Il Sung even wished to spark an indigenous revolutionary movement in South Korea akin to the struggle in South Vietnam.[13]

On the other hand, Kim Il Sung may have also been motivated by socialist internationalism and a professed desire to take on a more leading role in the Asian communist movement. Document No. 8Document No. 16, and Document No. 19, for example, suggest that in seizing the USS Pueblo, North Korea wanted to assist North Vietnam and open up a second front against the United States.[14]

As the preceding discussion suggests, many factors appear to have influenced North Korea’s military adventurism in 1968, but one important thread which runs throughout this collection is the role of China. Document No. 28, in particular, prompts us to reevaluate the Blue House Raid and the USS Pueblo Crisis as part of a concerted North Korean effort to restore and strengthen its alliance with the People’s Republic of China.

The Chinese Cultural Revolution and the Sino-Soviet split exposed and aggravated tensions between Pyongang and Beijing, and by late 1967 the Sino-North Korean alliance was greatly weakened. Many reports produced by the Romanian Embassy in Pyongyang point to the serious deterioration of bilateral relations between China and North Korea during the late 1960s. In March 1967, for example, Romanian diplomats reported that the North Korean Foreign Ministry had been criticizing the Chinese government for spreading false information about the Korean Workers’ Party.[15]

Although the icy-relationship between China and North Korea was obvious in 1967, many socialist bloc diplomats speculated that Sino-DPRK relations could improve. And although North Korea sent about 100 pilots to North Vietnam in 1967, the Chinese leadership had stressed that the best assistance the DPRK could offer to Vietnam would be to open up a second front against the Americans on the Korean Peninsula.[16] The Chinese Comunist Party (CCP) leaders apparently promised that if North Korea were to launch such an attack, China would provide Pyongyang with extensive aid and assistance.[17] The idea of liberating South Korea and waging a war against the United States was also regarded by socialist bloc countries as a means to bring about a rapprochement between North Korea and China.[18]

In 1967, Vietnamese diplomats accredited to Korea emphasized that the leadership of the KWP purposefully exaggerated clashes in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in order to compel socialist bloc countries to fulfill North Korean requests for military, economic, and political assistance. Accordingly, the North Korean war scare was also a signal to the CCP that the DPRK did not support Soviet revisionism and in fact sought, as China wished, to “start a war with the Americans.”[19] Chinese diplomats likewise recognized that North Korean propaganda about the imminent danger of war on the Korean Peninsula was “directed at the normalization of relations with China.”[20]

If these observations are correct, one might conclude that, in January 1968, the North Korean leaders were finally attempting to follow the advice of the CCP and, in exchange, expected to receive extensive Chinese support and aid. The comments of Wang Peng, counselor and Chargé d'affaires of the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in Pyongyang, found in Document No. 28, are particularly revealing. By March 1968, Wang Peng’s attitude toward the DPRK had “completely changed,” a Romanian diplomat noted, and Wang had become “an active supporter of the forceful line promoted by the DPRK.” Perhaps even more important, Wang signaled that the Chinese Communist Party was ready to offer support and assistance to North Korea. “We, the Chinese diplomat added, share the conviction of the Korean comrades that war is drawing near and the People’s Republic of China has repeatedly declared that it would grant its full support to the DPRK.” The Embassy of Romania concluded that, as a result of the Blue House Raid and the USS Pueblo Crisis, “Sino-Korean bilateral relations have been reinvigorated” and that “past quarrels” were quickly fading.

As long as Pyongyang’s state and Party archives are closed to the outside world and the memoirs and testimonies of senior North Korean officials are hidden from public view, a conclusive assessment of Kim Il Sung’s rationales and strategies in launching the Blue House Raid and seizing the USS Pueblo in January 1968 will be difficult to reach. This collection of Romanian documents, however, does bring us closer to better understanding why Kim Il Sung pursued military adventurism, particularly in terms of the Sino-North Korean relationship.

Mitchell Lerner is an associate professor of history at The Ohio State University Newark Campus. His publications include The Pueblo Incident: A Spy Ship and the Failure of American Foreign Policy (University of Kansas Press, 2002) and Looking Back at LBJ: White House Politics in a New Light (University of Kansas Press, 2005).

Jong-Dae Shin is a professor at the University of North Korean Studies, Seoul, and a former Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center. Professor Shin’s current research focuses on North Korea’s foreign relations and inter-Korean relations in the 1970s. His numerous publications include Principal Issues of South Korean Society and State Control (co-author) (Yonsei University, 2005) and Theory of Inter-Korean Relations (co-author) (Hanul, 2005). 

Eliza Gheorghe is a Ph.D. student at Oxford University studying Romania’s foreign relations during the Cold War.

 

List of Documents
 

All documents included in this collection were obtained and translated for NKIDP by Eliza Gheorghe.

 

DOCUMENT No. 1

Telegram from Pyongyang to Bucharest, TOP SECRET, No. 76.012, Urgent

22 January 1968

 

DOCUMENT No. 2

Telegram from Pyongyang to Bucharest, TOP SECRET, No. 76.013, Flash

24 January 1968

 

DOCUMENT No. 3

Telegram from Pyongyang to Bucharest, TOP SECRET, No: 75.015, Flash

24 January 1968

 

DOCUMENT No. 4

Telegram from Pyongyang to Bucharest, TOP SECRET, No. 76.016, Flash

25 January 1968

 

DOCUMENT No. 5

Telegram from Pyongyang to Bucharest, TOP SECRET, No. 76.017, Flash

25 January 1968

 

DOCUMENT No. 6

Telegram from Pyongyang to Bucharest, TOP SECRET, No. 76.018, Urgent

26 January 1968

 

DOCUMENT No. 7

Telegram from Pyongyang to Bucharest, TOP SECRET, No. 76.020, Flash

26 January 1968

 

DOCUMENT No. 8

Telegram from Pyongyang to Bucharest, TOP SECRET, No. 76. 022, Urgent

27 January 1968

 

DOCUMENT No. 9

Telegram from Pyongyang to Bucharest, TOP SECRET, No. 76.024, Flash

27 January 1968

 

DOCUMENT No. 10

Telegram from Pyongyang to Bucharest, TOP SECRET, No. 76.025, Flash

29 January 1968

 

DOCUMENT No. 11

Telegram from Pyongyang to Bucharest, TOP SECRET, No. 76.026, Flash

29 January 1968

 

DOCUMENT No. 12

Telegram from Pyongyang to Bucharest, TOP SECRET, No. 76.027, Urgent

29 January 1968

 

DOCUMENT No. 13

Telegram from Pyongyang to Bucharest, TOP SECRET, No. 76.032, Flash

2 February 1968

 

DOCUMENT No. 14

Telegram from Pyongyang to Bucharest, TOP SECRET, No. 76.033, Urgent

5 February 1968

 

DOCUMENT No. 15

Telegram from Pyongyang to Bucharest, TOP SECRET, No. 76.035, Urgent

7 February 1968

 

DOCUMENT No. 16

Telegram from Pyongyang to Bucharest, TOP SECRET, No. 76.040, Regular

12 February 1968

 

DOCUMENT No. 17

Telegram from Pyongyang to Bucharest, TOP SECRET, No. 76.042, Regular

15 February 1968

 

DOCUMENT No. 18

Telegram from Pyongyang to Bucharest, TOP SECRET, No. 76.044, Regular

16 February 1968

 

DOCUMENT No. 19

Telegram from Pyongyang to Bucharest, TOP SECRET, No. 76.046, Urgent

19 February 1968

 

DOCUMENT No. 20

Telegram from Pyongyang to Bucharest, TOP SECRET, No. 76.047, Regular

19 February 1968

 

DOCUMENT No. 21

Telegram from Pyongyang to Bucharest, TOP SECRET, No. 76.048, Urgent

22 February 1968

 

DOCUMENT No. 22

Telegram from Pyongyang to Bucharest, TOP SECRET, No. 76.049, Flash

23 February 1968

 

DOCUMENT No. 23

Telegram from Pyongyang to Bucharest, TOP SECRET, No. 76.051, Urgent

27 February 1968

 

DOCUMENT No. 24

Telegram from Pyongyang to Bucharest, TOP SECRET, No. 76.053, Regular

28 February 1968

 

DOCUMENT No. 25

Telegram from Pyongyang to Bucharest, TOP SECRET, No. 76.054, Urgent

1 March 1968

 

DOCUMENT No. 26

Telegram from Pyongyang to Bucharest, TOP SECRET, No.76.064, Regular

14 March 1968

 

DOCUMENT No. 27

Telegram from Pyongyang to Bucharest, TOP SECRET, No. 76.068, Urgent

17 March 1968

 

DOCUMENT No. 28

Telegram from Pyongyang to Bucharest, TOP SECRET, No. 76.069, Urgent

17 March 1968

 

Footnotes
 

[1] “Telegram From the Commander in Chief, United Nations Command, Korea and the Commander of United States Forces, Korea (Bonesteel) to the Commander in Chief, Pacific (Sharp),” July 21, 1967, National Security File, Country File, Korea, Vol. IV, Lyndon Baines Johnson Library, Austin, Texas.

[2] Document No. 5, Letter from GDR Ambassador to DPRK, December 8, 1967, to State Secretary and First Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, reprinted in Mitchell Lerner, “‘Mostly Propaganda in Nature:’ Kim Il Sung, the Juche Ideology, and the Second Korean War,” NKIDP Working Paper 3 (Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, 2010), 61.

[3] Document No. 8, “Note on a Conversation with the Polish Ambassador, Comrade Naperei, on 26 January 1968, in the Polish Embassy,” 27 January 1968, in Lerner, “Mostly Propaganda in Nature,” 71.

[4] New York Times, December 23, 1968, 3.

[5] “Worldwide Treatment of Current Issues,” reports on December 23 and December 27, 1968, White House Aide Files, Fred Panzer papers, Box 224, Johnson Library

[6] See, for example, “Summary Minutes of Meeting,” January 24, 1968, United States Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964–1968, Volume XXIX, Part 1, Korea (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 2000) 468-475.

[7] See Document No. 13 in Lerner, “Mostly Propaganda in Nature.”

[8] Lynchburg News, January 30, 1968, 14.

[9] Senator Mendell Rivers (D-SC) quoted in Washington Post, January 27, 1968.

[10] See Chuck Downs, Over the Line: North Korea's Negotiating Strategy (Washington, DC: AEI Press, 1999); Mitchell B. Lerner, “‘Mostly Propaganda in Nature:’ Kim Il Sung, the Juche Ideology, and the Second Korean War,” North Korea International Documentation Project Working Paper No. 3 (Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson Center, 2010); and Narushige Michishita, North Korea’s Military-Diplomatic Campaigns, 1966-2008 (New York: Routledge, 2010).

[11] See also, Mitchell B. Lerner, The Pueblo Incident: A Spy Ship and the Failure of American Foreign policy (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2002), 193-214.

[12] “Pueblo ho phenapsakunul wiyohan Jeongsewa approui Junmang” (“The Circumstances and prospects of the Pueblo Incident”), in Jumidasakwanie waemubuchangkwanege bonaen boko (The ROK Embassy in the U.S. to the ROK Foreign Minister), 1968. 1. 26 Jeongboboko (26 January Information Report), No.778-157, 1.21 Mujanggongbi chimtu mit Pueblo ho nappuksakun, 1968-69 (The Guerrilla Infiltration of 21 January and the Pueblo Incident, 1968-69), (Seoul: Waemubu), Vol.1, No.729, 55, 2662. 

[13] See also Bernd Schaefer, “North Korean ’Adventurism’ and China’s Long Shadow, 1966-1972,” Cold War International History Project Working Paper 44 (Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson Center, 2004).

[14] Vandon Jenerette, “The Forgotten DMZ,” Military Review, Vol. 68, No.5 (May 1988): 32-43.

[15] Telegram from the Romanian Embassy in the DPRK to the Romanian Foreign Ministry, March 7, 1967. Archives of the Romanian Foreign Ministry, Top Secret Documents, No. 76.084.

[16] Far Eastern Department of the Soviet Foreign Ministry, “Memorandum about Sino-Korean Relations,” March 7, 1967, in AVPRF, f. 0102, op. 23, p. 112, d. 24, pp. 5-12; Hungarian Embassy in the USSR to the Hungarian Foreign Ministry, October 20, 1966, MOL, Top Secret Documents, 1966, 74.doboz, IV-250, 005007/1966. See also Merle Pribbenow, “North Korean Pilots in the Skies over Vietnam,” North Korea International Documentation Project e-Dossier 2 (November 2011).

[17] Soviet Embassy in the DPRK to the Soviet Foreign Ministry, “Memorandum on Sino-Korean Relations in 1966,” December 2, 1966, in AVPRF, f. 0102, op. 22, p. 109, d. 22, pp. 38-49.

[18] Telegram from the Romanian Embassy in the DPRK to the Romanian Foreign Ministry, April 18, 1967. Archives of the Romanian Foreign Ministry, Top Secret Documents, No. 76137.

[19] Telegram from the Romanian Embassy in the DPRK to the Romanian Foreign Ministry, April 18, 1967. Archives of the Romanian Foreign Ministry, Top Secret Documents, No. 76137.

[20] Telegram from the Romanian Embassy in the DPRK to the Romanian Foreign Ministry, April 7, 1967. Archives of the Romanian Foreign Ministry, Top Secret Documents, No. 14.213. 

 

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