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North Korea Captured A US Spy Ship 50 Years Ago, And They Still Have It

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Ryan Pickrell China/Asia Pacific Reporter

The only active-duty U.S. Navy vessel held captive by a foreign government is in North Korea, where it has sat for half a century.

Tensions with North Korea skyrocketed 50 years ago when the belligerent nation attacked and seized an American spy ship, taking the crew hostage for the better part of a year.

North Korean patrol boats intercepted the USS Pueblo Jan. 23, 1968, a U.S. Navy intelligence ship operating in nearby waters. North Korea fired on the American vessel when it attempted to escape, killing a member of the crew. The USS Pueblo ultimately surrendered, and the surviving 82 crew members were taken prisoner.

The United States' navy spy ship USS Pueblo sits on Daedong river in Pyongyang August 16, 2003. The spy ship was seized by the North Korean navy with 83 crew in international waters in 1968. The 82 survivors were freed after nearly a year of tense negotiations Civic representatives of North and South Korea held a four-day joint festival in Pyongyang to celebrate the 58th anniversary of the National Liberation Day from Japan's colonial rule (1919-1945) as the Korean Peninsula's security has been an international concern since North Korea disclosed its nuclear weapons program. REUTERS/Lee Jae-Won

The United States’ navy spy ship USS Pueblo sits on Daedong river in Pyongyang August 16, 2003. REUTERS/Lee Jae-Won

Before the North Koreans boarded the ship, the crew attempted to destroy the sensitive information and equipment onboard, but they were unable to dump everything. “The North Koreans got a lot of documents,” Don Peppard, an administrative assistant on the USS Pueblo and president of the ship’s veterans association, revealed to Fox News. The capture of the American spy ship is considered to be one of America’s worst intelligence debacles.

North Korea brutally interrogated and tortured the crew, especially Cmdr. Lloyd Bucher, for 11 months before they were released following negotiations between the U.S. and North Korea and a decidedly-insincere apology from the Americans. While the crew was returned home, the USS Pueblo stayed behind in North Korea.

The U.S. considered a variety of contingency plans — including the use of nuclear force against the North, but the Johnson administration decided to pursue a course of action that would not lead to war.

Several years ago, the North turned the USS Pueblo into an exhibit at the Pyongyang Victorious War Museum, a popular tourist attraction for the North Koreans and a reminder of the time they got the best of the U.S. Navy. It sits on a local river, as attempts by the U.S. to have the ship repatriated have been unsuccessful.

North Korean four-star general Park In-ho (64), who participated in a battle to seize the United States' navy spy ship USS Pueblo in 1968, briefs visitors in front of the spy ship on a river in Pyongyang May 3, 2004. The spy ship was seized by the North Korean navy with 83 crew in 1968. The 82 survivors were freed after nearly a year of tense negotiations. About 300 South Korean workers completed on Monday a four-day trip to Pyongyang for an inter-Korean May Day celebration. REUTERS/Lee Jae-Won

North Korean four-star general Park In-ho (64), who participated in a battle to seize the United States’ navy spy ship USS Pueblo in 1968, briefs visitors in front of the spy ship on a river in Pyongyang May 3, 2004. REUTERS/Lee Jae-Won

The infamous Pueblo incident was preceded by a separate incident a few days earlier when North Korean commandos attempted to assassinate the South Korean president in a raid on the Blue House, and followed by an incident the following year in which North Korea shot down a U.S. aircraft, killing more than 30 American military personnel.

Half a century later, North Korea remains a major threat to U.S. national security, as it is developing increasingly-powerful nuclear bombs and ballistic missiles.

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