The growing crisis in North Korea opens old wounds for Al Plucker.
Thirty-five years ago, Plucker was a young navigator aboard the USS Pueblo when it was captured off the coast of North Korea. Plucker and his crewmates were tortured and humiliated during 11 months in captivity before they were released.
Today, the Pueblo remains docked in Nampo on North Korea’s west coast, where visitors hear a briefing from two North Korean sailors who took part in the capture and watch video recordings, the Korean Central News Agency has said.
The news agency in 1999 quoted visitors as saying the spy ship “bears witness to the U.S. imperialists’ history of aggression on Korea.”
Plucker, 56, other survivors and supporters want to bring the ship home. They have lobbied the Bush administration and Congress to make its return part of any negotiations with North Korea.
“It was our responsibility; it was our ship,” he said. “It would give all us crew a peace of mind if we knew it was on our home ground.”
A spokesman at North Korea’s U.N. delegation in New York refused to comment.
Sitting in the kitchen of his home on a turkey farm near this tiny town about 30 miles north of Denver, Plucker thumbs through scrapbooks of news clippings about the crisis as he vividly recalls his ordeal.
At 21, Petty Officer 3rd Class Plucker had just competed three tours in the Vietnam War when he was assigned to the U.S. Navy vessel.
On Jan. 23, 1968, he had just gotten off duty when North Korean torpedo boats surrounded the Pueblo and opened fire, killing one sailor and wounding 10.
Plucker said the captain tried to avoid capture while the crew burned top-secret papers, but North Korean forces boarded the ship and brought it ashore.
The 82 crew members were taken to two military bases near Pyongyang, where they were beaten, tortured and left malnourished, Plucker said. At one point, he weighed about 98 pounds.
“We would get an apple, and we’d keep it for weeks under our beds, just peeling away a tiny piece at a time, because we were just so hungry,” he recalled. “You’d count grains of sugar, that’s how starving you were.”
The sailors were crowded into barracks. Often, they were forced to sit silently in small chairs at a table for days at a time.
North Korea claimed that the ship was inside its waters.
The U.S. government said the Pueblo was in international waters.
The hostages were released two days before Christmas.
The Navy considered a court-martial for the ship’s commander, Navy Cmdr. Lloyd M. “Pete” Bucher, for letting the Pueblo fall into enemy hands without firing a shot and for failing to destroy much of the ship’s classified material.
He was never brought to trial.
Plucker, who received a Purple Heart and a POW medal, returned to Colorado, attended college and married. He has spent the past 30 years raising turkeys.
He acknowledged that returning the ship to the United States would not erase his memories, but believes that it would help put some of the nightmares to rest.
“I was 21 years old then, just a kid,” he said. “And my youth, everything, was taken away. I’ve been too serious ever since.”
Plucker and a group of supporters have been meeting for about 18 months to draft letters to U.S. leaders and North Korean officials requesting the return of the ship, whose namesake is a city about 100 miles south of Denver.
“The committee feels this could be the one little olive branch that shows the North Korean government is trying to work with us,” said Paulette Stuart, a member of Puebloans for the Return of the USS Pueblo. “Relations could improve by this token.”
Last year, Donald P. Gregg, former U.S. ambassador to South Korea, delivered to North Korean officials a letter from Pueblo Chieftain Publisher Robert Rawlings and other supporters asking for the ship’s return.
He said a deal to return the Pueblo was hinted at in an Oct. 3 letter in which Vice Foreign Minister Kim Gye Gwan invited him to visit Pyongyang.
When he met with Kim, Gregg said, he was told that the climate had changed and that it was no longer an option.
Gregg said it was clear the North Koreans were referring to U.S. allegations that North Korea was secretly pursuing a program to produce highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons.
The White House disclosed that the North Koreans had acknowledged the secret program, and the Bush administration has refused to resume negotiations until the program is eliminated.
Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.) is planning to reintroduce a resolution in Congress to ask North Korea to return the ship.
“It would be a very diplomatic thing for them to do; it would be a thawing of very frigid relations,” Campbell said. “But the chances are getting worse, not better.”
As global tensions rise, the Pueblo group’s hopes are dimming.
“Of course, our efforts are determined by negotiations by the U.S. with North Korea,” Rawlings said. “And it doesn’t look good for us, or for negotiations right now.”