How the seizure of a US spy ship by North Korea nearly sparked nuclear war
Updated 1338 GMT (2138 HKT) August 8, 2018
"This is it, they're taking us out here to kill us," Stu Russell thought as he trudged through the snow in the middle of the night into a dark forest.
Russell was one of 83 Americans held captive inside North Korea, following the seizure of the USS Pueblo spy ship in international waters, on January 23, 1968.
For weeks they were kept in a sparse, freezing-cold building they nicknamed "the Barn." It had no running water and was infested with rats and bed bugs. Inside, the men were denied sleep, forced into stress positions, whipped and beaten. Their officers, particularly Lloyd Bucher, the ship's commander, came in for vicious punishments, as their interrogators demanded they sign "confessions" stating they were illegally spying in North Korean territorial waters when they were captured.
Like today, 1968 was a period of heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula. The war that led to the division of the country had only stopped 15 years earlier and bloody skirmishes were still common.
The crew were terrified of the North Koreans. During one interrogation, after Petty Officer Donald McClarren refused to sign a confession, his guard pulled out a gun, put it to McClarren's head and pulled the trigger. The unloaded weapon clicked, and McClarren passed out.
Mock executions like this were routine, as were beatings which seemed like they would never end.
That night in the forest, as Russell shivered and slipped on the icy ground, he became ever more convinced the end had come.
The seizure of the Pueblo remains one of the most embarrassing incidents in US military history, the first hijacking of a naval vessel since the Civil War, 153 years earlier.
The incident -- reconstructed here from top secret diplomatic cables; CIA, NSA and State Department reports; and interviews with and testimonies from the crew -- raised tensions in the region to near breaking point. Fifty years on, it remains the closest the world came to a second Korean War, one that cables show US generals were prepared to use nuclear weapons to fight, and could have sucked in both the Soviet Union and China.
That the Pueblo's seizure did not result in war was the result of months of careful diplomatic negotiations between North Korea and the US, held in near secret at Panmunjom, the so-called "truce village" on the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea.
As those negotiations dragged on, the crew of the Pueblo were beaten, tortured, and forced to sign increasingly ludicrous confessions, even as they fretted they would face further punishment on return to the US. If they ever got back.