As we watch Putin in Ukraine or China flying bombers near Taiwan or Iran in the Middle East, we remember today another anniversary of the 1968 Pueblo incident. Back then, North Korea seized the ship, the sailors were taken prisoner, and the Johnson administration was caught off guard, as David Welma wrote in 2018 on the 50th anniversary:
North Korea’s brazen capture of the Pueblo caught Washington flat-footed.
“What’s your speculation on what happened?” President Lyndon Johnson is recorded asking the next morning in a phone call to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara.
“Mr. President, I honestly don’t know,” McNamara replies. “I think we need a Cuban missile crisis approach to this, and goddamn it, we ought to get locked in a room and you ought to keep us there, insist we stay there, until we come up with answers to three questions: what was the Korean objective, why did they do it; secondly, what are they going to do now — blackmail us, let it go; and thirdly, what should we do now?”
Why did they do it? North Korea saw a Johnson administration with too much on its plate, from the Tet Offensive to the deteriorating political situation over here. It saw an opportunity and made their move. The Johnson administration took the punch and did not punch back. My guess is that North Korea bet on the US not punching back, took the gamble, humiliated the US and that was it.