219. Telegram From the Embassy in Korea to the Department of State1

3600. From Ambassador Porter. Ref: State 103652.2

General dearth of hard info on North Korea here makes it difficult to judge NK motivations and interests.3 In case of Pueblo, it is more difficult for us to make judgement since we do not know how long Pueblo was in area and what its actions and equipment were.
Pueblo incident and Blue House raid are clearly related. Once Seoul raid had been successfully carried out, North Koreans, uncertain of what actions we and ROKs might take, may have desired to remove major source of information on their own countermeasures. In so doing, North Koreans may well have had Israeli action against USS Liberty in mind.4 [Page 482] Although there has been some speculation that action was taken to provide KPA with major “victory” for its 20th anniversary February 8, it seems unlikely to us that North Koreans would have taken such grave risk for propaganda purposes alone.
While timing of Pueblo seizure is related to Seoul raid, there is complex of reasons why NK would undertake both. In this, Vietnam plays central role. Kim Il-Sung has long advocated greater Communist assistance to NVN and his latest pronouncement, calling for “more positive actions” to aid Hanoi, was carried by AP on Jan 18. At time when all aspects of Vietnam struggle are intensifying, NK leadership may well have felt that they could make no greater contribution to Communist cause and to their own purposes in Korea than to take bold actions designed to reduce support in ROK for augmented or even continued participation in Vietnam, to take advantage of current political difficulties of and to further reduce public confidence in Pak govt, and to shake mutual confidence between U.S. and ROK. Bold action could also, of course, create a diversion in Korean peninsula and force U.S. to divert military resources from Vietnam effort and stimulate additional domestic and overseas pressures against U.S. Asian policy.
Forecasting NK actions is risky game. Certainly their past conduct in refusing to release our helicopter in 1965 and returning pilots only after lengthy negotiation, plus their pattern of treatment of ROK fishermen, gives no ground for optimism that they will react favorably by releasing vessel and crew immediately. We are more inclined to believe that they will attempt to exploit their possession of ship and crew to maximum extent from both technical and propaganda points of view. After these purposes have been ably served, they will probably return crew, but under conditions of considerable humiliation to U.S.
Although activities of past few days may cause them to proceed with caution, we can expect North Koreans to continue to carry out their basic plan for increased subversive effort against ROK this year, especially if they are not penalized in some way for these two coups. Their propaganda is attempting to make it appear that major revolt is already sweeping South, which they must sustain by action.
NK will not permit any action by us to go unchallenged. They seem confident and sure of themselves and appear convinced that we have neither capability nor determination to deal with them while so heavily engaged in Vietnam.
  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 33–6 KOR N–US. Secret; Flash;Exdis.
  2. In telegram 103652 to Seoul, January 24, the Department of State requested Porter’s assessment of why the North Koreans seized the Pueblo and what might be expected from them in the future. (Ibid.)
  3. In the view of the Chief of Staff of the Air Force, the North Koreans, being “an extremely security conscious nation,” seized the Pueblo “to silence a US collector, embarrass the US and improve North Korea’s image,” conclusions drawn “largely because of its plausibility and the lack of evidence to substantiate the seizure as part of an overall plan to initiate hostilities or motivated by other reasons.” The assessment discounted the possibility that North Korea acted under instructions from Moscow and fully rejected any involvement by Communist China. (Telegram from the Chief of Staff, Air Force, to the Strategic Air Command, January 24; Department of State, INR/IL Historical Files, Pueblo, 23 January 1968 to December 1968)
  4. The intelligence-gathering vessel USS Liberty was deployed in the eastern Mediterranean on May 23, 1967, in response to mounting tensions in the Middle East that culminated in the Six-Day War between Israel and its neighboring Arab states in June of that year. While in international waters off the coast of Israel and the United Arab Republic, the Liberty came under attack through a series of misunderstandings and errors on June 8 first by Israeli jet bombers and then by Israeli torpedo boats. Although heavily damaged and its crew decimated, the Liberty sailed to sanctuary. A history of the incident was written by the National Security Agency/Central Security Service, Attack on a SIGINT Collector, the U.S.S. Liberty, United States Cryptologic History: Special Series, Crisis Collection, Vol. 1 (1981).