Five days later, the USS Pueblo -- a small, unarmed U.S. Navy surveillance vessel -- was seized in international waters by North Korean patrol boats. Cmdr. Lloyd "Pete" Bucher and the 81 surviving members of the Pueblo's crew were beaten and tortured by their captors while the Johnson administration in Washington, enmeshed in micromanaging the war in Vietnam, dithered. Finally, after a year of brutality -- and being threatened that one member of his crew would be shot, starting with the youngest, each day -- Bucher signed a concocted "confession." The North Koreans promptly repatriated the crew and kept the Pueblo, which they use as propaganda to this day.
The unwillingness to deal forcefully with the North Korean regime in 1968 set a precedent from which neither the West in general nor the U.S. in particular ever has recovered. North Korean leaders, emboldened by the West's flaccid response, stepped up their campaign of terror. Intelligence operatives and military units dispatched by Pyongyang have kidnapped hundreds of South Korean and Japanese mariners, fishermen and even civilian women and children. North Korean terrorists have made no fewer than three additional attempts to assassinate South Korean leaders. One of them, a 1983 bombing in Rangoon, killed 17 diplomats and members of South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan's security detail. In 1987, a bomb placed aboard Korean Airlines Flight 858 killed all 115 aboard, including four Americans.
Over the course of the two decades since, little has changed except that North Korea has acquired nuclear weapons and the means of delivering them. In 1994, after North Korea's "Great Leader," Kim Il Sung, died of a heart attack at the age of 82, the Clinton administration opened the door to direct negotiations with his son and successor, Kim Jong Il. An "Agreed Framework" for dismantling North Korea's nuclear weapons program was negotiated, and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright went to Pyongyang to dance at the anniversary of the founding of the Workers' Party of Korea. She famously proclaimed a "new beginning" for U.S. relations with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
Like father, like son; the dictators played us for suckers. Neither the Clinton administration's initiatives nor those of his successor, President George W. Bush, produced any of the promised "breakthroughs" with Pyongyang. The Bush administration went so far as to remove the despots in Pyongyang from the U.S.' list of state sponsors of terrorism.
Despite Western deliveries of massive amounts of humanitarian food aid and fuel oil to ease starvation, the North Koreans accelerated their nuclear and ballistic weapons programs, while the West vacillated. Now the Obama administration is repeating the same mistakes. And Mr. Obama -- having vowed to "meet without preconditions" with brutal despots, such as Kim Jong Il -- runs the grave risk of making things even worse.
The capture of journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee by a North Korean patrol along the China-North Korea border March 17 provided Pyongyang with two new "bargaining chips" for avoiding stronger sanctions -- and restarting stalled "six-party talks" with the U.S., Russia, China, Japan and South Korea. The harsh sentence meted out to the two women from Al Gore's Current TV operation is sure to expedite the opening of yet another "diplomatic initiative" -- just what Pyongyang wants. But if Mr. Obama thinks that he can appease the outlaws in Pyongyang with an iPod or even a two-volume DVD collection of Hollywood's best movies, he is mistaken.
Oliver North is a nationally syndicated columnist, the host of War Stories on the Fox News Channel, the author of the new novel Heroes Proved and the co-founder of Freedom Alliance, an organization that provides college scholarships to the children of U.S. military personnel killed or permanently disabled in the line of duty. Join Oliver North in Israel by going to www.olivernorthisrael.com.