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  • Flash Point North Korea: The Pueblo and EC-121 Crises
  • Mitchell Lerner
Richard A. Mobley, Flash Point North Korea: The Pueblo and EC-121 Crises. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2003. 216 pp. $29.95

In December 1968, eighty-two American sailors from the USS Pueblo returned to the United States after almost a year of brutal captivity in North Korean prison camps. The men, who had been captured by the North Korean navy while conducting an intelligence collection mission in the Sea of Japan, were quickly flown to San Diego for debriefing. During the debriefing, Seaman Stu Russell relayed a message his captors had given him the night before his release. "The Sea of Japan is the Sea of Korea," they told him. Any American ships or planes entering would be destroyed. When Russell repeated the warning to the intelligence officers who interviewed him, they laughingly dismissed the threat. Three months later, North Korea shot down an EC-121 reconnaissance plane that had been conducting missions over the Sea of Japan, with thirty-one Americans on board. The similarities were eerie: Both the ship and the plane had been nearly defenseless; both reported to the Naval Security Group in Kamiseya, Japan; both suffered from serious communications problems; and both lacked the protection of any support forces. There was one major difference, however—the EC-121 left no survivors.

These two events form the basis for Richard A. Mobley's new book, Flash Point North Korea. Mobley does not aspire to provide a comprehensive account of either crisis; instead, he focuses on the military and intelligence aspects of the two attacks in order to draw some general conclusions about the intelligence-gathering operations as a whole, as well as some specific lessons regarding the conduct of them against North Korea. The result is a book that is both thoughtful and interesting, although Mobley is more successful with his first goal than with his second.

Mobley is a retired U.S. Navy commander, and his book, not surprisingly, is strongest in its military analysis, especially with regard to the Pueblo seizure. Flashpoint leaves no stone unturned in examining both the military's response to the crisis and the interaction between the military, intelligence, and political communities throughout the year-long incident. Of particular interest is his detailed study of how military leaders sorted through various policy options until finally choosing a largely diplomatic path. Mobley also does a good job of integrating the demands of the Vietnam War into the story and of providing an extensive glimpse into the risk-assessment processes for both missions. His criticism of those who oversaw the assessments, largely for failing to consider North Korea an independent country with its own imperatives and values and instead evaluating them from within the perspective of Western standards of behavior, is both well-supported and consistent with the emerging scholarship in the field.

Nonetheless, Mobley's account, despite its thoroughness, has some weaknesses. Although he offers some criticisms of the military, his overall assessment of its performance [End Page 136] is far too generous. He fails, for example, to examine the ship's conversion from a dilapidated cargo carrier into an intelligence collector, a task in which the Navy leadership failed miserably. Among other things, the ship's steering engine, internal communications network, and electrical system consistently failed, yet authorities refused to act on the captain's many pleas for repairs. Board of Inspection and Survey tests done three months before the Pueblo's departure noted 462 deficiencies, most of which still existed when the ship finally left port. Mobley's focus on the military dimension also detracts from the whole of the story. His description of the diplomacy of the events is particularly skimpy, and he pays almost no attention to the domestic response inside the United States. The book is also much stronger on the Pueblo than on the EC-121 incident, which is covered in no more than sixty pages. Although these problems are not fatal, they render the book much more suitable for readers who are already familiar with the two crises. Anyone searching for a complete picture of either of these events...