The U.S. intelligence-gathering ship Pueblo is seized by North Korean naval vessels and charged with spying and violating North Korean territorial waters. Negotiations to free the 83-man crew of the U.S. ship dragged on for nearly a year, damaging the credibility of and confidence in the foreign policy of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration.
The capture of the ship and internment of its crew by North Korea was loudly protested by the Johnson administration. The U.S. government vehemently denied that North Korea’s territorial waters had been violated and argued the ship was merely performing routine intelligence gathering duties in the Sea of Japan. Some U.S. officials, including Johnson himself, were convinced that the seizure was part of a larger communist-bloc offensive, since exactly one week later, communist forces in South Vietnam launched the Tet Offensive, the largest attack of the Vietnam War. Despite this, however, the Johnson administration took a restrained stance toward the incident. Fully occupied with the Tet Offensive, Johnson resorted to quieter diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis in North Korea.
In December 1968, the commander of the Pueblo, Capt. Lloyd Bucher, grudgingly signed a confession indicating that his ship was spying on North Korea prior to its capture. With this propaganda victory in hand, the North Koreans turned the crew and captain (including one crewman who had died) over to the United States.
The Pueblo incident was a blow to the Johnson administration’s credibility, as the president seemed powerless to free the captured crew and ship. Combined with the public’s perception–in the wake of the Tet Offensive–that the Vietnam War was being lost, the Pueblo incident resulted in a serious faltering of Johnson’s popularity with the American people. The crewmen’s reports about their horrific treatment at the hands of the North Koreans during their 11 months in captivity further incensed American citizens, many of whom believed that Johnson should have taken more aggressive action to free the captive Americans.