311. Memorandum of Conversation1

SUBJECT

  • Pueblo

PARTICIPANTS

  • Anatoliy F. Dobrynin, Soviet Ambassador
  • Under Secretary Katzenbach
  • Deputy Under Secretary Bohlen
  • Robert O. Homme, Staff Assistant to the Under Secretary

Ambassador Dobrynin called at the Under Secretary’s request.2 After greeting the Ambassador and presenting him with commemorative photographs of the NPT signing ceremony, the Under Secretary began by expressing our deep concern over the lack of progress at Panmunjom. He noted that more than 35 days had passed since the [Page 694]last joint meeting and questioned the purpose of continuing these meetings in view of the lack of movement. The Under Secretary noted that the North Korean demands, i.e., that we admit the Pueblo was engaged in espionage, admit intrusion into North Korean waters, apologize and give assurances against any repetition, remain unchanged.

The Under Secretary stated that the US Government is certain the Pueblo did not enter North Korean territorial waters. We assume that the Soviet Government would not wish us to consider the activity of the Pueblo as espionage. As to assurances, this posed no problem since we did not intrude and had no intention of ever doing so.

He pointed out that the Pueblo was becoming more of a public and political issue in the United States. On his recent California trip, the first question asked was always what were we doing to get the Pueblo crew back. He called the Ambassador’s attention to the fact that the biggest ovation Mr. Nixon received during his acceptance address was for his reference to doing something about the Pueblo. The Pueblo will undoubtedly be an issue in the Presidential campaign and the American public would associate the Soviet Union with North Korea. This type of agitation and oratory could not help but have an effect on our relations with the Soviet Union. While we could improve our public image by saying more, this would only increase demands for action.

Referring to a possible solution, the Under Secretary reminded the Ambassador that we have told the North Koreans we would sign an appropriately amended version of the document they tabled on May 8 acknowledging receipt of the crew, if we would simultaneously receive custody of the crew. However, we have received no response to this suggestion.

Ambassador Dobrynin replied that the Soviets had received a different version of the facts from the North Koreans. The Under Secretary suggested Ambassador Dobrynin examine the evidence himself. He was confident that if the Ambassador did so he too would be convinced the Pueblo made no intrusion. Ambassador Dobrynin asked why the Soviets should doubt the North Koreans. The Under Secretary replied that he personally knew the Pueblo was under strict orders not to go within 13 miles of the North Korean coast. It had good navigators and there was no reason to believe the Captain would violate his orders or make such a navigational error.

The Under Secretary then asked the Ambassador whether, under similar circumstances, the Soviet Union would apologize for something it knew it had not done. If we had violated North Korean waters, we would, of course, apologize. We did so under similar circumstances when our aircraft violated Soviet air space over the Kurile Islands. The Under Secretary stated he would not hesitate to send another ship [Page 695]within the 12-mile limit and apologize for the intrusion if he thought it would prove this point.

Ambassador Dobrynin commented that perhaps this was a big country-little country problem and that the North Koreans clearly do not view it in the same light as would a large nation.

The Under Secretary repeated his sincere conviction, based on all the evidence which he had personally examined, that there had been no intrusion. He noted again that there was no operational reason for the Pueblo to approach within 12 miles, that navigational errors were unlikely and that if it had intruded we would have apologized.

To this Ambassador Dobrynin again stated that his Government had no reason to doubt the North Korean statement that the Pueblo was in their waters, and mentioned that several of the Pueblo crewmen had admitted this. The Under Secretary observed that the statements made by some crew members could not be verified since no one but North Koreans have been allowed to see them.

The Under Secretary then asked the Ambassador for his advice on how to resolve the problem, observing that the Soviet Union has influence with the North Koreans while we do not.

Mr. Bohlen added that under international law and common maritime practice, if a ship of another nation crosses your 12-mile limit, the practice was to warn it and escort it out of your waters. The Ambassador replied that all this depends upon your point of view. Different-sized nations hold different opinions on such subjects. The Soviet Union has made its views clear to North Korea. As to the facts, there had been no Soviets present who could verify them.

To the Under Secretary’s question whether his Government objected to a third country inquiry, the Ambassador replied that this was all right with the Soviet Union.

When the Under Secretary asked why no one had been allowed to see or talk to the crew, the Ambassador commented that there was much bitterness against the United States in North Korea.

The Ambassador stated that he was really in no position to give advice on the Pueblo problem.

The Under Secretary asked why the North Koreans should want to continue holding the Pueblo crew. Ambassador Dobrynin said he could not speak for them. The Under Secretary emphasized that the North Koreans had not even indicated whether they would return the crew if an apology were made. The Ambassador remarked that he was under the impression they had indicated to the US they would. The Under Secretary stated that they had never told us that they would do so.

The Under Secretary repeated his question whether the Soviets wanted the type of legitimate intelligence collection the Pueblo was [Page 696]engaged in to be considered espionage. The Ambassador said the Soviet ships do not do this within territorial waters. The Pueblo issue, he said, always comes back to the question of fact. The North Koreans say one thing, while the United States says the opposite. The Soviet Government does not wish to be in the position of verifying the facts; moreover, the North Koreans know very well the Soviet Government’s views.

The Ambassador then asked what the United States is prepared to do to obtain the crew’s release. The Under Secretary reiterated that we will not admit to espionage nor admit that the Pueblo violated North Korean waters. We will admit the intelligence gathering mission of the vessel and will give assurances against future intrusion. Ambassador Dobrynin again remarked that the central point is whether or not the Pueblo did intrude.

The Under Secretary asked Dobrynin to put himself in our position. They are holding our crew—under conditions that could lead our men to say almost anything. We are convinced we did not intrude. Assuming we admitted our “guilt” and apologized, the American system being what it is the crew would disavow its guilt upon its return and the United States Government would be made out a liar.

To the Under Secretary’s query as to whether the solution might be our receipting an amended version of the North Korean draft apology document—one that did not admit to espionage—Dobrynin stated he did not think that was what the North Koreans wanted.

The Ambassador, however, said he would report our view to his Government.

The Under Secretary gave the Ambassador a memorandum summarizing the views he had expressed and again asked for the Soviet Government’s suggestions on this matter. He showed Ambassador Dobrynin a copy of the draft North Korean apology statement. Ambassador Dobrynin asked what it was in it that we could not accept. The Under Secretary pointed out the espionage, intrusion and apology demands, and noted that, in fact, it was only a request for leniency toward men we would be admitting were guilty of espionage and asked if the Soviet Union would sign that kind of a paper.

  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 33–6 KOR N–US. Secret; Nodis. Drafted by Homme on August 14.
  2. A talking paper had been prepared in advance of this meeting. (Memorandum from Godley and Springsteen to Katzenbach, July 17; ibid.) The meeting had been delayed by Katzenbach’s absence from Washington and by the onset of the Czech crisis. That situation, in turn, delayed the implementation of measures to prod the North Koreans to call the next Senior Members meeting. (Memorandum from Brown to Katzenbach, July 30, and memorandum from Godley to Rusk, August 9; both ibid.)