317. Action Memorandum From Acting Secretary of State Katzenbach to President Johnson 1


  • Pueblo

The Problem:

The fundamental issue at Panmunjom has been that the North Koreans have insisted on our signing an admission of espionage and [Page 710]intrusion into their territorial waters, apologies for both, and a promise of no further intrusion.

We have refused to admit espionage or to apologize for acts we do not believe were committed. Various forms of conditional apology (e.g., we regret any intrusion that may have occurred) have been rejected.

The “Overwrite” Solution:

To break this impasse, we have, with your authorization on May 18, been exploring the possibility of General Woodward writing the following sentence on the “document of apology and assurance” presented on May 8 by the North Koreans: “There have been turned over to me today at Panmunjom 82 surviving members of the crew of the USS Pueblo and the body of Seaman Duane D. Hodges.” He would sign this inscription. If the North Koreans accepted this they would presumably claim that we had signed their piece of paper. We would say that we had signed only what Woodward had written.

Recent Progress:

For the last four months we have been pressing for a firm commitment by the North Koreans that if we were to “acknowledge receipt of the crew on a document satisfactory to them” they would simultaneously release the whole crew. At the 21st meeting (September 17) the North Koreans for the first time said unambiguously that if we would sign their document, they would return the crew. At the 22nd meeting (September 30), they were even more explicit, saying that the entire crew would be released simultaneous with our signing their document.

The “Overwrite” Not a Deception:

In the negotiations since May we have on a number of occasions noted that the North Korean document of May 8 does not correspond to what we believe are the facts. Moreover, we have been scrupulous in using the words “acknowledge receipt on” in describing what we might be prepared to do, and when Pak has interpreted this to mean that we were “willing to sign” General Woodward has replied, “You are using words I did not use.” Our Korean language experts tell us the difference between “sign” and “acknowledge receipt on” is even clearer in Korean than in English. Moreover, we have sent a message to the North Koreans through an Australian contact in Tokyo spelling out in more detail what we had in mind. We are not absolutely sure that this message got through to Pyongyang, but our Australian contact and his Korean friend are confident that it did.

Moreover, at the last (22nd) meeting, General Pak presented a slightly modified draft of his paper of May 8 with this additional paragraph at the bottom:

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“Simultaneously with the signing of this document the under- signed acknowledges receipt of 82 former crew members of the Pueblo and one corpse.” (The entire document is at Tab A.)2

This added paragraph tends to undercut our overwrite and confirms our feeling that Pak knows what we have in mind. If in the end he accepts the overwrite, we will not have misled or duped the North Koreans; rather they will have accepted an ambiguous act as meeting their requirements. They have been as consistent as we: they never speak of acknowledging receipt, only of “signing our document”. We are not at all sure that they will in fact accept the overwrite ploy.

The following courses of action appear open:

Track A: Attempt to negotiate a satisfactory receipt.

We do not believe that the North Koreans would accept any draft which did not contain an admission of espionage and intrusion and an apology for both. Yet a negotiation which reduced but did not eliminate these unacceptable elements would have succeeded only in making the draft our own as well as theirs and therefore more difficult to repudiate. The more extreme the document the easier the repudiation.

Track B: Sign, with an explanatory statement.

At the last Closed Meeting before the signing we could make a further statement for the record that it contains many assertions which we believe to be false, that we do not admit any crime, that the seizure was wholly illegal, and that we are signing the document only for humanitarian reasons to get back the crew. Our public statement at the time of signature and release would probably have to be limited to making clear that our signature was based entirely on the North Korean “evidence” as anything stronger might result in refusal to deliver the crew. Repudiation would follow, of course, immediately upon the crew's coming into our possession. (A draft of such a statement of repudiation is attached as Tab C.)

Track C: Try a last-minute overwrite.

We would move ahead to negotiate with Pak the technical arrangements for the release, leaving unresolved the ambiguity between “sign” and “acknowledge receipt on”. We would then attempt the overwrite at the time of the actual delivery of the crew.

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This might work, but if Pak rejected it we would be in a difficult position. He will probably insist on the press being present for the signature and release. For us to attempt to overwrite without a clear understanding and acceptance in advance might seem to the world to be sharp practice, and to stand firm on it would seem to many a heartless legalism. Rather than see the crew return to North Korea, Woodward would have to sign their form of receipt. And we could hardly argue that he had signed without instructions when faced by an unforeseen situation. If we proceed along this track we must be prepared to end up on Track B—signature, with a statement for the record that takes some of the bite out of the document.

Track D: Clarify the overwrite.

We would firm up the detailed arrangements for a release and tell Pak precisely what we plan to do in the overwrite.

Pak will probably reject this, at least for a meeting or two, perhaps finally. But he may accept it if convinced that this is as far as we are prepared to go. If he does agree, we have an impeccable record of disclosure and there is no legitimate basis for any accusations of sharp practice. If he finally does not agree, Track B is not foreclosed.


I prefer alternative D. Track A is a dead end which will lose time without taking us anywhere. Track C is probably only a round-about way of getting to B—the outright signature. Though a public statement at the time of signing would help, the arguments against Track B are still strong. It would be demeaning to the United States to sign under blackmail imposed by an illegal act an apology for something we did not do and an admission that perfectly legal actions are illegal. We would not, for example, sign an admission that our actions in Viet-Nam constituted aggression and apologize for them even if this would insure release of 82 captured pilots. The repudiation of our signature would also be demeaning and could not wholly erase the stigma of the signature. The apology would confirm the belief of many in the United States and elsewhere that despite our denials and repudiation we were in fact engaged in improper acts, thus further tarnishing our reputation at home and abroad. Our men are dying and being captured in Viet-Nam and are risking their lives along the DMZ in Korea. The Pueblo crew are no different. Finally, there is no need to consider alternative B unless it becomes quite clear that the overwrite (Track D) will not work.

I recommend that we proceed with alternative D. If it works it would result in the release of the crew on a basis with which we can live and if it should fail would not foreclose other alternatives, [Page 713]should we later ever wish to use them. Secretaries Rusk and Clifford concur.3

In addition to a copy of the North Korean document (Tab A), I attach at Tab B a draft statement such as might be used if we succeed with the overwrite and at Tab C a draft statement such as might be used if we signed the North Korean document under protest.

Nicholas deB Katzenbach
  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Korea—Pueblo Incident—Cactus IV, Cactus Miscellaneous Papers, February to December 1968. Secret;Nodis; Cactus. Attached to an October 5 memorandum from Rostow to President Johnson that indicates that the President saw it. Another copy is attached to an October 5 memorandum from Katzenbach to Rostow in which the former states: “This is a very important decision and I would very much appreciate it if the President would read the memorandum in its entirety.” (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 33–6 KOR N–US)
  2. Tabs A, B, and C are attached but not printed.
  3. Rostow's memorandum to the President identified in footnote 1 above bears a handwritten notation indicating that Rostow notified Katzenbach on October 7 that the President approved alternative D.