The crew of the USS Pueblo, a U.S. Navy vessel captured by North Korean forces in 1968, are suing North Korea in international court over alleged human rights violations that occurred during their 11 months of captivity.

“Our clients are seeking to hold North Korea accountable for the unspeakable acts committed against the crew of the USS Pueblo more than 50 years ago and the impact it has had on them and their families since then,” the plaintiffs’ lawyers said in a statement.

On January 23rd, 1968, the 83-man crew of the USS Pueblo, took to the radios of their lightly armed reconnaissance vessel, calling for help that would never come. They were in international waters, beyond the 12 nautical mile boundary recognized as the extent of a nation’s claim, but as four North Korean torpedo boats joined the heavily armed sub-chaser circling them, the reality of their situation began to set in. The USS Pueblo was about to be captured by North Korea.

Lloyd Bucher, the ship’s commander, recognized that his vessel’s two M2 Browning .50 caliber machine guns wouldn’t be enough to stop the armed boarding party he could see amassing on the deck of the sub-chaser, and as two North Korean MiGs flew by low, overhead, he made a decision. He gave the order to head for the open sea with everything the Pueblo’s two 500hp diesel engines could offer.

As the Pueblo’s engines roared to life, all four torpedo boats opened fire, spraying the 177 foot vessel with machine gun rounds. Then the subchaser chimed in, launching 57mm shells into the Pueblo’s forward masts and crippling its communication antennas.

“We need help,” radio operator Don Bailey shouted through the comms. “We are holding emergency destruction. We need support. SOS, SOS, SOS. Please send assistance.”

Bucher, realizing help would not be arriving, ordered his crew to begin destroying the stockpile of classified documents the ship housed, and realized that only delayed cooperation would buy his men the time they needed to get through all of it. If they fought and were boarded, the documents would surely fall into the hands of the North Korean sailors, but if they agreed to be escorted into harbor, they could finish their work.
He took to the radio and sent out one more message, half situation report, half plea for assistance.

North Korean map showing where they captured the USS Pueblo (Wikimedia Commons)

“Have been requested to follow into Wonsan, have three wounded and one man with leg blown off, have not used any weapons.” He said. “How about some help, these guys mean business. Do not intend to offer any resistance.”

For the next 11 months, the crew of the Pueblo were tortured, beaten, and malnourished, as tensions between the United States ratcheted up toward open warfare. At one point, the Pentagon even prepared a nuclear strike plan, though an agreement was finally reached that saw the release of the prisoners, averting a rehash of the Korean war that had ended in armistice only fifteen years earlier.

Now, the surviving members of the crew, as well as the family members of some of those who have passed, are seeking restitution in the form of $600 million in damages, though it seems entirely unlikely that Kim Jong Un’s North Korean regime will even respond to the suit. If the crew wins their case in court, however, they may still be able to receive some sort of monetary compensation through a $1.1 billion dollar fund established as a result of the “Justice for United States Victims of State Sponsored Terrorism Act.”

North Koreans raise their fists during a rally held in front of the captured USS Pueblo in 2010. The ship remains at the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum in Pyongyang to this day. (AP photo)

Many of the crew members are now rather advanced in age, and some are facing medical issues spurred by their time in captivity, the suit alleges.
In order to be eligible for funds from the Victims fund, the plaintiffs need to demonstrate only that they have “secured final judgments in a United States district court against a state sponsor of terrorism.” President Trump added North Korea to the state sponsors of terror list last November, paving the way for this possibility.

However, even if the crew members and families don’t actually receive any money, the case also offers a form of closure for many of the crew that have struggled to cope in the years since being held captive.

“Even though they can’t get back that nearly entire year of their lives, they hope this case will finally bring closure to that horrible chapter.” Their lawyers said in a statement.


Feature image courtesy of the Associated Press