Thu, Sep 08, 2005 - Page 5 News List

N Korea hints at giving back US ship

CONDITIONAL Pyongyang's tentative offer to send back the `Pueblo,' captured in 1968, would hinge on a visit by a high-level US official, a former diplomat said


Negotiations to eliminate North Korea's nuclear weapons remain in limbo, but the North Koreans are giving hints they might be ready to end another long-lingering problem with the US by returning the captured spy ship USS Pueblo.

They are setting an unlikely condition, though, for the return, considering hostile US-North Korean relations: A visit by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice or another top-level US official.

"It would be a gesture, but somebody needs to make a gesture," said Donald Gregg, former US ambassador to South Korea who brought home the offer after a mid-August trip to North Korea.

He told the US State Department about his discussions. A department official said there are no plans for a high-level visit to North Korea.

The Pueblo ranks low in the hierarchy of irritants causing bad blood between the two countries. Paramount is the North's admitted nuclear weapons and missile programs.

The US has criticized North Korea's human rights record, its maintenance of a million-strong army while its people live off donated food, and what it sees as North Korea's support for terrorism.

Still, to those involved with the Pueblo -- and to the US navy -- the ship's plight is far more than a footnote to the history of the Cold War.

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 Pueblo became on Jan. 23, 1968, the first US warship captured since a British ship forced the USS Chesapeake to surrender off the Virginia capes in 1807.

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 fireman Duane Hodges, and 10 of the 82 surviving crewmen were wounded. All 82 were held 11 months, often enduring torture, before being sent to South Korea on Christmas Eve across the "Bridge of No Return" in the Demilitarized Zone dividing the Koreas.

Captured vessel

* On Jan. 23, 1968 North Korea attacked and captured the USS 'Pueblo.'

* US records show that the ship was in international waters; Pyongyang says that it was inside the Korean coastal zone.

* One crew member was killed in the attack and the rest were held until Christmas Eve of that year.

* The ship, which was the first US warship captured since 1807, is now a tourist attraction in Pyongyang.

The Pueblo, the only active-duty US warship in the hands of a foreign power, now sits at its moorings on the bank of the Taedong River in Pyongyang, North Korea's capital. Organized tours of North Koreans walk its decks to view evidence of their country's supremacy on the high seas; bullet holes on the bulkheads are circled in red.

Gregg heads the Korea Society in New York, which describes itself as a nonpartisan organization dedicated to promoting "awareness, understanding and cooperation between the people of the United States and Korea."

He did not identify the official who suggested a visit as a precursor to the return of the Pueblo. But he said that Kim Gye-gwan, North Korea's vice foreign minister and chief negotiator in the recessed nuclear talks, was among officials in the room and heard the discussion.

Gregg said he has no doubt the offer was genuine.

Gregg has asked about the return of the Pueblo on each of his four trips to Pyongyang during the last decade.

When he asked this time, Gregg said, his host told him, "If there were a high-level visit from the United States, we would be prepared to say we no longer need to keep the ship."

Gregg said his host did not specify what was meant by "high-level" visitor, but he said his impression was the Koreans meant at least the secretary of state.

The offer came during a period of relative cordiality in the relationship between the US and a country US President George W. Bush has described as part of an "axis of evil."

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