New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson on Monday toured a U.S. warship captured by North Korea in the 1960s that is now used to inspire anti-American sentiment in the reclusive communist regime.
The North Korea colonel who served as Richardson's guide smiled as he told the governor the ship was an example of continued U.S. aggression toward his country. Richardson and his traveling companion, former Veteran Affairs Secretary Anthony Principi, were then shown bullet holes circled in red paint and a video describing the maneuvering of "brazen-faced U.S. imperialists."
The USS Pueblo was captured by North Korea on Jan. 23, 1968, after being sent defenseless on an intelligence-gathering mission off the country's coast. It was the first U.S. warship captured since 1807, and remains the only active-duty warship in foreign hands.
Navy records show the ship was in international waters at the time of its capture; the North insists it was inside the Korean coastal zone. North Korea held the ship's crew of 82 for 11 months before releasing them. The ship was then moored to the bank of the Taedong River in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang.
Richardson, a Democratic presidential candidate who is in North Korea this week to collect the remains of U.S. servicemen killed in the Korean War, said the tour of the ship was "unpleasant."
"Despite the success with the remains, this is a relationship with a lot of tension, and this shows that," Richardson told reporters after the tour.
He called the Pueblo visit "a lot of propaganda, but we're guests here."
Principi, who was a Navy officer at the time of the Pueblo's capture, said it was disconcerting to have something from that era still on display.
"It's very unpleasant to hear the assertion of continued aggression against the Democratic People's Republic of North Korea," Principi said.
Ship for 'anti-American education'
Pak In Ho, the North Korean naval colonel who led the U.S. delegation on the tour, told the Americans that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il had personally decreed that the ship should be used for "an anti-American education."
"This spy ship, the Pueblo, is considered a vivid, living example of such hostile policies by the U.S. against the DPRK," Pak said through an interpreter, using the formal name of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
More than 33,000 American troops died in the Korean War from 1950-1953, and more than 8,100 are listed as missing. After North Korea invaded South Korea, U.S. forces intervened on behalf of the South while Chinese forces backed the North.
Richardson's four-day trip, which has been endorsed by the Bush administration, comes days before a crucial deadline in a recent nuclear disarmament accord. Under the terms of the agreement, the North said it would shut down its main nuclear reactor by April 14.
Richardson has regularly made diplomatic trips, often on his own initiative, to a number of global hot spots. Though visits to North Korea by senior U.S. officials are rare, this was Richardson's sixth to the country.