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Return of the USS Pueblo

The United States Should Lead by Example

October 2005


Earlier this year Colorado Senator Wayne Allard introduced Senate Resolution 53 which, among other things: "Demands the return of the U.S.S. Pueblo to the United States Navy." It is an appropriate demand in an effort to rectify a violation of International Law by a belligerent enemy force nearly four decades ago.

U.S.S. Pueblo Incident - January 23, 1968

The U.S.S. Pueblo was a United States Navy vessel sent on an intelligence mission off the coast of North Korea. Indeed it was a spy ship, a description some would use to justify the actions of the North Korean Navy on January 23, 1968. There is however, no justification for the actions that day that resulted in the death of one U.S. Marine, the illegal imprisonment of the surviving 82 crewmen, and the seizure of an American ship. (It was the first U.S. Navy ship thus boarded and seized on the high seas in more than 150 years.) When considering this incident keep in mind:

  1. Intelligence gathering is essential to proactive measures to insure the security of our nation, and in fact, the entire world. Spy ships, or other intelligence gathering assets, should not be denigrated because of the nature of their mission. They are, in fact, our first line of defense.

  2. The U.S.S. Pueblo was operating in international waters at the time of the incident. While any nation is within their rights to defend their territorial waters, the U.S.S. Pueblo never entered North Korean waters. 

The crew of the U.S.S. Pueblo, American sailors and Marines, were illegally held, interrogated, and tortured until their release on December 23, 1968. Their ship remained behind, held by the North Koreans as a "war trophy." The U.S.S. Pueblo remains a commissioned ship in the U.S. Navy, despite the fact that it continues to be held by the North Koreans in violation of International Law.

My hometown of Pueblo, Colorado, the city for which the U.S.S. Pueblo was named, has long called for actions by our own government to pressure North Korea for return of this American ship. It is appropriate for our city to lead in this effort, and for Colorado Senator Wayne Allard to have introduced measures in the Senate demanding the same. In August of this year former U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Donald Gregg received verbal indications from high ranking North Korean officials that, based upon certain conditions, the U.S.S. Pueblo might be repatriated.

Make no mistake about my own beliefs. I fully concur with the efforts by my city and my Senator demanding the return of the Pueblo. There is, however, only one condition that I can see as a justifiable precursor to return of this American ship, held illegally as a trophy of war. That single condition is that the United States first lead by example--returning to the Korean people a war trophy that has been illegally held by US for more than a century.


SHINMIYANGYO  신미양요: 辛未洋擾

America's demands for the return of the U.S.S. Pueblo would seem hypocritical in light of our nation's own similar infraction on the Korean people, except that the incident is so little known. It stems not from an incident during the Korean War (1950 - 1953), but from an incident that predates that conflict by almost a century. In Korea it is remembered as "Shinmiyangyo," literally interpreted as "Western disturbance in the Shinmi Year." The Shimni Year was 1871.

In the nineteenth century the two countries we know today as North Korea and South Korea were united as the single nation of Corea, living under the Chosin (Yi) Dynasty, one of world history's longest-running dynasties (1392-1910). Under strong leadership the people of Corea had a deep sense of nationalism, a proud appreciation of their heritage, and an extreme desire to be left alone. This fanatical desire for isolationism caused the people of the small Asian peninsula to become known as the "Hermit Kingdom."

While European and Western powers successfully pressed China, Japan, and other Oriental countries into trade in the 1800s, Corea successfully resisted most intrusions. The Corean people became suspect of outsiders, and brutally efficient in turning away unwanted trespassers. In many respects such resistance to outside influence made the opening of dialog with Corea a challenge to other nations.

Corea's capitol city of Seoul sits inland on the Han River, which runs northwest into the Yellow Sea. At the point where the river meets the sea, virtually the gateway to Corea, is Kanghwa Island. In the 1800s Kanghwa was a fortified island that effectively served as the kingdom's gate keeper. Corean laws prohibited foreigners to pass any barrier of defense, and even Corean vessels were not allowed to sail through Kanghwa Straits to the mouth of the Han River without written permission of the Corean authorities.

In October 1866, following the execution of nine French missionaries inside Corea, French troops invaded Kanghwa Island in a bitter three-week war the Coreans called the Pyonginyango (French Disturbance in the Pyongin Year.) The French successfully captured and occupied Kanghwa City, plundering it for spoils and confiscating 340 volumes from Corea's archives. Despite initial success, as the brief war continued, mounting French casualties and unsuccessful attempts to attack across the straits and into the mainland, forced the invaders to withdraw. With them the French took as of the "trophies of war," the ancient volumes and manuscripts seized from the Royal Library and Administration buildings at Kanghwa City. Though in recent years there has been diplomatic discussions on returning these important articles of Korean history to their rightful heirs, to date not one item has been returned to Kanghwa Island or to the Korean people.

The United States failed to learn from the French fiasco of 1866, a three-week campaign during which the French won the battles but ultimately lost the war. Riding a domestic sense of invulnerability under the popular cultural feeling of American Manifest Destiny, and buoyed by Commodore Matthew Perry's effective 1853 gunboat diplomacy that had opened Japan to Western trade, a five-ship American naval force arrived off the western coast of Corea in 1871. 

Ironically, the flag ship for Rear-Admiral John Rodgers Corean expedition in the United States' first clash with the Korean people was the U.S.S. Colorado. The flotilla, with sufficient Navy Bluejackets and U.S. Marines to mount a limited land invasion, arrived off the western shores of Corea on May 23. Over the following week a series of communications failures doomed the mission and set the stage for military conflict.

Frederick F. Low, the U.S. State Department's foreign minister to China, joined Admiral Rodger's expedition in order to accomplish two tasks: 1) Inquire as to the fate of a merchant vessel that disappeared in Corea in 1866, and 2) To establish a trade treaty with the Coreans. Meanwhile, Admiral Rodgers and elements from his five warships were to take soundings in the surrounding waters and map the Corean coast.

On May 31 the American expedition was anchored south of the Kanghwa Straits when the first Corean envoys visited the ship. They came primarily to enquire as to the reason for the five foreign war ships at anchor near their coast. Minister Low, the one man aboard who understood Oriental thinking most keenly, refused to meet with the envoy, insisting he would only meet with officials "of the first rank." (The envoys were officials of the third rank.) These officials were advised that the American ships would be making soundings of the waters while awaiting a visit from higher ranking Corean officials. 

Admiral Rodgers later wrote in his official report, "We expressed the hope that no molestation would be offered to our parties in landing or passing up the river (Kanghwa Strait), and requested that word be sent to their people that they might preserve the friendly relations which we desired. It was further stated that twenty-four hours would be given to make this announcement along the river, before any movement was made."

The following day, two of Admiral Rodgers ships began moving up the river between Kanghwa Island and mainland Corea to sound the waters. The Americans believed that the silence expressed by the Corean envoy upon being appraised of this plan was a sign of acquiescence.  In fact, by nature of their culture, this silence had been a frozen denial of permission for the American ships to proceed. Under the ancient Corean culture, unless permission was actually granted for someone to do something, that permission was denied. Thus, when the U.S.S. Monocacy, U.S.S. Palos, and steam launches and cutters from the other warships entered Kanghwa Straits on June 1, they were fired upon from a large, elbow-shaped fort on Kanghwa Island.

Ten days later, in retaliation for this act (which might be viewed as the Corean forces simply defending their territorial waters,) 651 American Marines and Navy Bluejackets landed at the southern end of Kanghwa Island and began a march up the coast. In fierce fighting during the three-day "Weekend War," three Americans were killed in action and ten wounded. (A fourth died of disease.) Fifteen men earned Medals of Honor for their heroism, the first awards of our Nation's highest award for valor to be earned in a foreign war. The brave men who landed and fought at Kanghwa Island can not be faulted for Washington, DC's lack of foresight and failed foreign policy. They were soldiers who answered the call to duty and fought bravely. Among the dead was Lieutenant Hugh McKee who led the forces from the U.S.S. Colorado.

The casualties, and most of the fifteen Medal of Honor actions, occurred in the final battle of the three-day campaign, the struggle to capture the Kwangsungbo Fortress dubbed "The Citadel" by the Americans. It was obviously the strongpoint of the Corean defenses. Flying above the mountaintop fort was a large yellow flag with Corean symbols indicating that this was the post of Corean General Uh Je-yeon, commander of the island's forces, including legendary Tiger Hunters from the Yalu River region on the mainland. All of them had sworn to fight to the death against any power that dared to invade the privacy of the "Hermit Kingdom". Later, following the battle, Captain McLain Tilton wrote home that these soldiers: "Fought like tigers, having been told by the King if they lost the place the heads of every body on Kang Hoa (sp) Island on which the forts stood, should be cut off."

In a final battle that the Coreans might look upon much like Americans remember the battle at the Alamo, General Uh Je-yeon and his men literally fought to the death. When the end came the General and all of his men lay dead; the Americans counted nearly 250 bodies in and around the fortress. Perhaps the only Corean survivors were twenty men so severely injured they were captured before the battle finally ended. The U.S. Marines and Navy Bluejackets named the fortress Fort McKee after the commander who numbered among their three casualties, and encamped there for the night.

The American forces returned to their ship the following day, having won every battle on the island. Ultimately however, the American ships were forced to abandon their hapless mission and return home. Among the trophies of war taken from Kanghwa Island was the large yellow flag of General Uh Je-yeon. It was proudly displayed by the victors aboard the U.S.S. Colorado.

Today Kanghwa Island is a popular tourist attraction. The people of the island still maintain a deep sense of pride in their culture and history. The ancient fortresses of the island that once mounted valiant but futile resistance to both a French and then American invasion, along with the trails used in the marches across Kanghwa, are well-maintained to preserve the history of those conflicts and to stir the interest of the visitors. On May 27, 2000, a memorial service for General Uh Je-yeon was held here. Two men were special guests; one was Mr. Uh Yoon-won, grandson of the famous Generalissimo. The other was Mr. James Wardrop, great-great nephew of Lieutenant Hugh McKee. The two men embraced, each extending sympathy and forgiveness to the other for the death of two valiant leaders who had died in the Shinmiyangyo.

Missing from that ceremony, and still missing from the island that cherishes and preserves fortress walls and cannon that stood in defense of the kingdom in the late 19th Century, is the flag of General Uh Je-yeon. After coming the the United States aboard the U.S.S. Colorado the flag was placed in a museum at the U.S. Naval Academy, where it remains to this day. The flag that is so symbolic to the people of Korea, a war trophy still held by the United States, is seen by few people. Of those who have seen it, even fewer understand what it represents.

Let me reiterate, I fully support the demand that the North Koreans return to United States control our ship, the U.S.S. Pueblo. At the same time, in my heart and mind, that demand sounds shallow so long as the United States Navy continues to keep and display a similar war trophy. Some might argue that the U.S.S. Pueblo is a multi-million dollar ship, as opposed to a simple flag. To me, that fact makes return of General Uh Je-yeon's flag all the more compelling.

Following the Civil War, as former enemies learned once again to unit as friends, it was not at all uncommon for flags captured in battle to be returned to the various states. Kanghwa Island, at the mouth of the Han River leading to the capitol of the Republic of South Korea, sits within the boundaries of SOUTH Korea. It's people are our friends and allies. 

How can we as a nation, demand then that our enemies in North Korea release the vessel they illegally took from us while it was in international waters, while we refuse to return to our friends in South Korea, the flag we have held for more than a century--a flag captured on their own soil in a battle over their right to be left alone.

Doug Sterner

For a more complete historical account, visit our 5-page series on the SHINMIYANGYO.

Your own comments on this subject will appear below when you fill out the form at the bottom of this page. Thank you for your own insights and opinions.
Thank you so much for your words and support. They express my feelings exactly.
Thomas Duvernay   EMAIL: shinmiyangyo@hotmail.com  Pohang, Korea
I am the chair of the Humanities Department at Western Iowa Tech Community College in Sioux City, Iowa, a former professor of mass communications, and a Viet Nam veteran. I currently teach history in the online environment. You have done an excellent job of researching the details of the 1866 events in Korea. I strongly agree that, in good faith, the United States ought to return the flag of General Je-Yeon to the Korean people. Too bad this wasn't done during the ceremonies on May 27, 2000. United States history is rife with other examples of this type of hypocrisy. We should subscribe to the Christian doctrine of "Do unto others..." International diplomacy is an intricate web and we should always strive to do that which is "honorable" and "right." As a child I was always taught that Americans are the ones who wore the "white hats." Sen. Allard might have included the proposal to return the flag in his request to the North Koreans to release the U.S.S. Pueblo!
Ralph Swain, radrians@msn.com
Americans really need to stop whining. They have interfered with more countries than I can count - all in the name of democracy and freedom. How many U.S. invaded countries STILL have US military bases in them? Is that freedom? Is that democracy? When the U.S. invaded Iraq, the world (U.N.) said NO! I guess the U.S. doesn't let democracy get in it's way. And freedom from American tyranny doesn't count either. The vast majority of Koreans (I've talked to many) seem to want the U.S. OUT! But they feel obligated because of the Korean War or just feel powerless to eject the Americans.
If the U.S. really wants to be "friends", stop treating everyone like garbage! And get your military out of foreign countries. Your ship was not taken illegally. The U.S. was spying! Trade war souvenirs if you like, but don't expect free handouts. And when you bomb first (as in Afghanistan, Aug 2000 yes, really!) don't whine about paybacks! Peace will only happen when you all respect each other!!! I'm anti-American AND anti-terrorist. Redundant?
Steve Email:: you2k@hotmail.com  Seoul,  Korea
I've thought of the Pueblo ever since I heard it was captured while on watch as a CT-R on John Paul Jones Hill on GTMO. It really should be returned. I'ts our ship not those dopes in N Korea. I really can't put in here what I think about them so I'll only say, What can I do to get that ship home!
James 'SPY' Reilly Email: jpmrjr@iwon.com Cincinnati, OH
I am aware of the USS Pueblo because I had shipmates who lived through the unlawful imprisonment. I think of them often and the sacrifices they made with honor. It has been my thought that the capture of the Pueblo coupled with the John Walker spy activity did grave damage to our nuclear triad operations. I support return of the Pueblo as long as it entails absolutely no concession by the United States to North Korea. Unfortunately, the action is 30 plus years late. I did not know about General Uh Je-yeon's flag. Regardless of what is done about the Pueblo, we should, as a gesture of our goodwill, fairness and our station in the world, return the flag. It was taken at another time, for a different reason, and is an artifact that is better served back in the hands of the Korean people. Residing in the Academy museum serves no purpose at this point and can not be a major draw. Should the museum feel otherwise, a replica could be made and displayed with an explanation ! that the original was ceremoniously returned to the Korean people.
Harrison Solt  Email: harlyn@worldnet.att.net Gales Ferry, CT
American and Korean soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines have stood shoulder to shoulder against potential and actual enemy combatants on the Korean Peninsula, in Vietnam and now in Iraq and other parts of the world.

Trophies of war have always been important to the warriors who took them, and to those later warriors who carry on their heritage. But this flag, and probably other war trophies from that era and more recent events, can be powerful symbols of forgiveness, as well as past, present and future cooperation in defense of common ideals.

General Uh Je-yeon's flag, was well as similar war trophies, should be respectfully returned to those Nations with whom we now have cooperative relationships in support of Freedom and Peace. This is an excellent opportunity to further cement our nations' comradeship.
Gilbert E. Mestler gilmestler@aol.com  New York, NY


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