PYONGYANG, North Korea – The North Korean naval colonel smiled as he told the two surprised American envoys the ship they were about to board was an example of continued U.S. aggression toward his country.
"This spy ship, the Pueblo, is considered a vivid, living example of such hostile policies by the U.S. against the DPRK," Col. Pak In Ho said through an interpreter, using the formal name of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, as the muddy water of the Taedong River flowed beneath the only active-duty U.S. warship in the hands of a foreign power.
U.S. presidential candidate Bill Richardson and Anthony Principi, U.S. President George W. Bush's former veteran affairs secretary, grimaced before following Pak onto the ship for a tour that included bullet-holes circled in red paint and a video describing the maneuvering of "brazen-faced U.S. imperialists."
Pak told the Americans that Kim Jong Il, North Korea's leader, had personally decreed that the ship should be used for "an anti-American education."
"Unpleasant" was how both U.S. envoys, in North Korea this week to collect the remains of U.S. servicemen killed in the Korean War, described the afternoon.
It is also representative of the often rocky relationship between the countries, who, despite a February nuclear disarmament accord, have a long history of deep distrust and animosity. The Pueblo is a monument to these uneasy ties.
Sent defenseless on an intelligence-gathering mission off the North Korean coast, and given no help after North Korean torpedo boats mounted an attack, the USS Pueblo was captured Jan. 23, 1968. It was the first U.S. warship captured since 1807.
"Despite the success with the remains, this is a relationship with a lot of tension, and this shows that," Richardson told reporters after the tour.
He called the Pueblo visit "a lot of propaganda, but we're guests here."
Principi, who was a young navy officer at the time of the Pueblo's capture, said it was disconcerting to have something from that era still on display.
"It's very unpleasant to hear the assertion of continued aggression against the Democratic People's Republic of North Korea," Principi said.
Navy records show the ship was in international waters; the North Koreans insist it was inside the Korean coastal zone. In the attack, an explosion killed one, and wounded 10 of the 82 surviving crewmen. All 82 were held 11 months before being sent to South Korea on Christmas Eve across the "Bridge of No Return" in the Demilitarized Zone dividing the Koreas.