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Flipping the North Koreans off

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Not many people visit North korea these days but if you are one of the lucky few, more likely than not you will be led through an official guided tour of USS Pueblo – an American Intelligence vessel captured in 1968 – which remains the only American vessel currently in captivity.

The seizure of USS Pueblo is now one of the forgotten episodes of the Cold War. The U.S. claimed it was in the international waters, while the D.P.R.K. insisted that it was in the North Korean waters. Diplomatic and military stand-off that followed was punctuated by a series of photos, films, and letters depicting the crew of the Pueblo enjoying their comfortable captivity.

In reality, however, the crew was being subjected to psychical and psychological abuse. From behind the bars in one of the most isolated places on the planet, the crew nonetheless delivered a master class in political subversion. To undermine the credibility of the letters written home to suggest that they had willingly defected, the crew wrote about the events that never happened. In their press conferences, they used archaic words the Koreans didn’t perfectly understand. Since none of the Koreans knew English well enough to write the confession, the vessel’s commander wrote it himself. They checked the meaning of his words with a dictionary, but failed to catch the pun: “We paean the DPRK. We paean the Korean people. We paean their great leader Kim Il Sung”. (“Paean” is homophonic with “pee on”.)

And almost by accident, they came across the idea behind their greatest coup: in two propaganda movies, the crew noticed people giving the finger were not censored. The crew deduced that the North Koreans didn’t know what the finger meant. In the subsequent propaganda photos of the crew, their middle fingers were firmly extended to the cameraman. When the North Koreans questioned, the crew described it as the “Hawaiian good luck sign.” The ruse went on unnoticed until October 1968, when Time magazine explained the mysterious gesture appearing in many photos as one of “obscene derisiveness and contempt.”

This revelation infuriated the North Korean captors, bringing about a period of severe beatings and torture, and the propaganda letters, photos and videos stopped after this. Yet, it would take two more months for the U.S. to offer a perfunctory apology (retracted afterwards) to ensure the release of 82 crewmen. Diplomatic and morale victory hid the bitter reality that the loss of USS Pueblo was a significant blow to the intelligence services. It is now believed that the Soviets urged the North Koreans to seize the ship so that they can reverse engineer US equipment and codebooks.

Time Magazine never responded to the repercussions that followed its very public explanation, which in its entirely is reproduced below. For more photos, check the link here.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

October 1, 2010 at 11:29 pm

52 Responses

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  1. This isn’t about a “traitorous magazine” that published an article, really it’s about a handful of journalists whose ambitions to make a name for themselves created a huge problem for service men.


    May 10, 2012 at 6:44 pm

  2. RIP Steve Robin. We remember.


    May 11, 2012 at 3:55 am

  3. Late to the game here; But in fact, in the 1960s, Time Magazine was actually considered one of the most conservative magazines in America. So I’m going with the stupid explanation here. Suck on that, teabaggers. Newsroom has the right idea, but American Taliban is an understatement at best.

    Timothy Lee

    September 15, 2012 at 3:27 am

  4. […] captors of the USS Pueblo crew allowed servicemen to write letters home to their loved ones and be photographed for propaganda purposes. But as former hostage Rick Rogala recalls in an article in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, it quickly […]

  5. What I don’t understand is, why hasn’t the ship been destroyed? A single GPS guided cruise missile fired from international waters would do the trick and send a powerful message. Don’t steal property of the USA …you wont be allowed to keep it.

    grant Fournier

    July 27, 2013 at 6:47 am

  6. Drop a nuke on it!

    James Day

    March 30, 2014 at 11:31 pm

  7. […] hands gleefully* I so want the FT to give Evil Mommy the “Hawaiian Good Luck Sign” (click the link for historical […]

  8. […] word yet if the US sailors detained in Iran will be flashing “the Hawaiian good luck sign” at their captors, but it would certainly have double meaning this time […]

  9. Time magazine just like CNN


    January 13, 2016 at 2:12 pm

  10. […] wonder if he’s saying the stupidest thing he can think of sort of like the Sailors of the USS Pueblo flipping the bird when the Norks took them captive. As I saw someone say somewhere, I just hope they let his […]

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