On Jan. 23, 1968, the USS Pueblo and its crew were attacked by the North Korean military while peacefully sailing in international waters. The crew of the ship valiantly tried to resist capture but were outgunned and eventually forced to surrender. During the struggle, Petty Officer Duane Hodges was killed by enemy gunfire and multiple members of the crew were injured.
After the capture of the USS Pueblo, the remaining 82 crew members were taken to Wonsan, North Korea, and held in captivity for 11 months. During this time, the crew experienced brutal conditions and torture at the hands of their North Korean captors. While the crew members eventually were released, the USS Pueblo was not.
For the past 50 years, the USS Pueblo has sat moored in the Potong River and remains the only commissioned vessel by the United States Navy to be held in captivity. In that time, it has become one of North Korea’s most popular tourist destinations. It is disgraceful that this American ship – where an American life was taken – has become a tool for North Korean propaganda. Many Americans have forgotten about the USS Pueblo. Many never have even heard the story. However, many Coloradans haven’t forgotten the ship proudly named for one of the state’s cities. Over the years, Colorado, Pueblo County and the city of Pueblo repeatedly have passed resolutions calling for the ship’s return but to no avail. However, a few days ago, a rare opportunity presented itself.
At a summit in Singapore, President Donald Trump met with Kim Jong Un to talk about the denuclearization of North Korea. In anticipation of this historic meeting, I sent a letter to Trump, urging him to ask the North Korean leader for the return of the USS Pueblo as a sign of good faith. While I did not receive a direct response from the president, I did receive assurances from his administration that the return of this ship would be addressed in future negotiations with North Korea.
As the door to peaceful negotiations with North Korea continues to open, we all know that denuclearization must remain the top priority. It is vital that Kim Jong Un is held accountable and that he follows through on his promise to eliminate his entire nuclear arsenal. The security of this nation and the world depends on it.
While denuclearization and improvements in human rights are the most important goals of continued negotiations with North Korea, so long as the regime continues to hold this ship hostage and use it to celebrate the death and suffering of American service members, our nations never will have a good relationship. That’s why I recently asked the secretary of state, my former colleague in the House, Mike Pompeo, for an update on the current status of conversations with North Korea concerning the return of the USS Pueblo.
We owe it to the memory of Petty Officer Duane Hodges and the rest of the crew members to bring the USS Pueblo home, and I will continue to advocate for its return until this mission is achieved.
Rep. Scott Tipton represents Colorado’s 3rd Congressional district. This article originally appeared in the Pueblo Chieftan on June 24.