[GLOBAL EYE]North Korea seeks new trophyOn the Daedong River in Pyongyang, the U.S.S. Pueblo is on display. How would Americans feel to see this ship in the North Korean capital? It could arouse feelings of humiliation and anger.
The Pueblo seems to have given quite an impression to Nicholas D. Kristof, a New York Times columnist, during his recent visit to Pyongyang. It may have been because of the obsession often manifest in writers that “everything in sight is something to write about,” but whatever the reason, he wrote a column after seeing the Pueblo.
The Pueblo, the armed spy ship that was seized by North Korea on Jan. 23, 1968, is a symbol of humiliation for the U.S. Navy. It was the first Navy vessel to be captured by a foreign military in peacetime in the history of the U.S. Navy. North Korea contended that the capture was warranted because the Pueblo invaded its territorial waters. The United States rebutted that the seizure was North Korea’s military provocation, saying that at the moment of its capture, the Pueblo was in international waters 40 kilometers off Wonsan port on the country’s east coast.
Immediately after the incident, President Lyndon Johnson and White House policymakers took ultra hard-line countermeasures, like being ready to “drop a nuclear bomb on one North Korean city.” The aircraft carrier U.S.S. Enterprise was dispatched to the waters off the Wonsan port and 360 fighters that had been in Okinawa, Japan, were deployed around the Korean Peninsula. A war became a reality close at hand.
But it did not take much time before they realized that war was not so easy as they had thought. Their retaliation against North Korea by a military attack would mean the abandonment of the lives of 82 sailors in detention. Another deterrent was the Vietnam War. With that war in the worst situation, they could not start another war on the Korean Peninsula.
A week later, the United States and North Korea entered negotiations on an equal footing. After 10 months of tug-of-war negotiations, the United States admitted its invasion on the territorial waters and apologized to North Korea. North Korea returned all the crew via the Panmunjeom truce village to the United States, but not the ship.
North Korea’s propaganda tactics could not leave the war trophy alone. Secretly moved from Wonsan port to the Daedong River in 1998, the Pueblo has become a propaganda trophy to stand for “the People’s Republic’s unity and dignity.”
The columnist Kristof drew two lessons from the Pueblo incident. The first lesson was that North Korea could transfer nuclear material to foreign countries as much as the country wanted once it decided to do so. North Korea disguised the Pueblo as a freighter under the North Korean flag, sailed it for nine days through international waters around South Korea to the country’s west coast, and then up the Daedong River. The U.S. intelligence agency, which had been closely monitoring North Korea with patrol satellites, had the wool completely pulled over its eyes.
Kristof said, “If we couldn’t detect the transfer of a famous 176-foot ship, it’s ludicrous to think we could stop the smuggling of a grapefruit-size chunk of plutonium.”
Another lesson is that problems should be resolved with dialogue rather than confrontation. The diplomatic negotiations between the United States and North Korea over the Pueblo incident were tiring and despairing at times. All the same, Kristof argues, problem-solving through negotiations is “the best of a bunch of bad alternatives,” if not the best.
Kristof said that “the Bush administration’s dismissal of serious, direct diplomacy has made Korea more dangerous.” His conclusion was that “engagement may be arduous, frustrating and often unsatisfying, but it’s the only option we have left.”
In 1877, when the U.S. merchant ship General Sherman appeared in the Daedong River, Korean soldiers and civilians united to sink the vessel. More than 100 years later, North Korea seized the Pueblo and put it on exhibition right before the monument commemorating the sinking of the General Sherman.
On the day when the Pueblo opened to the public on the Daedong River, the Rodong Shinmun, the organ of the North Korean Workers’ Party, posted the following declarations: “By fighting with the United States, we have made a trophy of the General Sherman in the 19th century and the Pueblo in the 20th century. We will bring here a trophy in the 21st century too.”
A fourth round of the six-party talks is being held in Beijing today. Diplomatic negotiations are a war unaccompanied by arms. Denuclearization and peace on the Korean Peninsula are the booty of the 21st century that North Korea can capture through the six-party talks.
*The writer is an international affairs writer for the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Bae Myung-bok