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US demands North Korea returns spy ship USS Pueblo

The spy ship was seized by the North Korean navy with 83 crew in 1968 - Alain Nogues/Corbis Historical
The spy ship was seized by the North Korean navy with 83 crew in 1968 - Alain Nogues/Corbis Historical

The United States has demanded that North Korea returns the USS Pueblo, a spy ship seized in 1968 and moored in Pyongyang ever since as a tourist attraction.

Greg Steube, a Republican member of the House of Representatives, put forward a resolution last week calling on the North to return the ship, with Monday marking the 55-year anniversary of its capture on January 23, 1968.

The US has always insisted that the ship was operating outside North Korean waters in the Sea of Japan when it was approached and fired upon by four North Korean patrol boats and two Mig-21 fighters. One of the 83 crew was killed in the clash, with US forces unable to come to the vessel’s aid before it was boarded and towed to the port of Wonsan.

Mr Steube's resolution says the House “maintains North Korea’s seizure of the vessel USS Pueblo and its detention of the crew were in violation of international law”.

“The USS Pueblo is the property of the United States government and it should be returned to the United States”.

Pyongyang has no intention of handing ship back

The 313-tonne ship had been instructed to remain “at all times at a distance more than 13 nautical miles from the near point in North Korean territory, in order to avoid any possible incident”. The resolution adds that there is “no reason to believe the orders were not obeyed”.

North Korea claims the USS Pueblo – which remains a commissioned ship in the US Navy, despite being moored on the Pothong River in central Pyongyang – deliberately entered its territorial waters and that its forces were therefore justified in boarding and taking control of the vessel.

An editorial in Tuesday’s edition of the state-run Rodong Sinmun newspaper indicated that Pyongyang has no intention of handing the ship back to the US.

“The Pueblo incident served as a historic occasion which further highlighted the war victory of heroic Korea in the 1950s”, it said, adding that the incident showed that “victory always belongs to the DPRK and defeat always belongs to the United States in the confrontation between the two countries”.

The ship has been moored as a tourist attraction in Pyongyang ever since its capture - Eric Lafforgue/Art in All of Us/Corbis News
The ship has been moored as a tourist attraction in Pyongyang ever since its capture - Eric Lafforgue/Art in All of Us/Corbis News

The 82 crew of the ship and the remains of Fireman Duane Hodges were repatriated across the Demilitarised Zone 11 months after the ship was captured, with Commander Lloyd Bucher later saying he had been subjected to a mock execution by firing squad, in an effort to force him to confess to illegally entering North Korean waters. He later signed a confession when his men were threatened with execution.

The crew and their families filed a damages suit in 2018 for the “mental and physical abuse” they had endured in the North, with a US court ruling in their favour in 2021.

Pyongyang was ordered to pay $2 billion in damages, or a minimum of $3.35 million to each of the crew in compensation. North Korea has not paid the compensation.