The Time The U.S. Nearly Nuked North Korea Over A Highjacked Spy Ship

The U.S.S. Pueblo was stationed on the coast off the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The reason why the boat was at that place at that time, was to intercept communications from the communists of North Korea. The mission was ordered by Rear Admiral Frank L. Johnson and approved by American President Johnson’s National Security Council.

U.S.S. Pueblo was assigned with this mission, due to its advanced sensors and sensitive encryption devices, which made it the perfect spy ship and a vital instrument for the job. The spy ship was stationed on the coast for weeks before a submarine chaser buzzed it on January 21. One day later, there were two fishing trawlers bothering with their not so peaceful approach, however, nothing happened and they left without causing any trouble. According to John Prados and Jack Cheevers, the following day the Korean navy showed up and did not look too happy.

Not only that one crew member died in the attack and the rest of 82 people were threatened, interrogated and beaten, but all the NSA’s encryption equipment was lost after falling into the hands of North Koreans.

The incident left President Johnson and the United States with huge doubts and questions as to what their response should be. Some newly discovered classified documents have revealed Johnson’s plans at the time. The administration took into consideration many possible actions, some of them extremely risky, including a blockade of ports in North Korea and the attack across the Demilitarized Zone. They also considered putting up an act through which information would have been leaked to the Soviets, warning a possible United States attack of North Korea, the reports.

In the end, President Johnson decided that diplomacy was the best option and the safest way to bring the crew back home. However, according to Mitchell Lerner of Ohio State University, he did prepare a series of second plans.  One of these top secret plans was codenamed “Freedom Drop” and the mission was to use nuclear weapons to stop a possible invasion of South Korea and to destroy North Korea’s air force.

The crew members were freed 11 months later, in December 1968, following a number of negotiations between North Korea and the United States and some false apologies coming from the U.S. The crew of the Pueblo returned safely to a country weary of war.


Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE