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N. Korea's Growing Drug Trade Seen in Botched Heroin Delivery

May 21, 2003|Richard C. Paddock and Barbara Demick | Times Staff Writers

WYE RIVER, Australia — For a day and a half last month, the people of this small tourist town watched in puzzlement as the rusty freighter Pong Su maneuvered off the coast. At times, they say, the 350-foot cargo ship came within a few hundred yards of the rugged shoreline that is famous for shipwrecks.

Just after midnight April 16, the ship approached a rocky, deserted beach and launched a rubber speedboat. In it were two men and the only cargo the ship had been carrying: at least 110 pounds of high-quality heroin. The Pong Su was an unlikely drug-running vessel from an unexpected place: North Korea.

The sea was especially rough that night, and 8-foot waves swamped the little boat. The heroin and one North Korean made it to safety, but the other crewman did not. His kelp- entangled body washed up on shore. Later that day, police in a nearby town seized three men and the heroin, estimated to have a street value of $50 million.

The 4,480-ton Pong Su led Australian police vessels on a four-day chase in 30-foot swells until commandos boarded the freighter by helicopter and boat. The 29 remaining crew members, also North Koreans, were arrested and charged with aiding and abetting narcotics smuggling.

North Korea has been quietly involved in the drug trade since at least 1976, when a North Korean diplomat in Egypt was arrested with 880 pounds of hashish. Since then, there have been at least 50 arrests or drug seizures involving North Koreans in more than 20 countries, William Bach of the State Department's Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs told a Senate Governmental Affairs subcommittee Tuesday.

In the past several years, most North Korean trafficking has involved methamphetamine and heroin destined for Japan, Taiwan, China and Russia, Andre D. Hollis, a Pentagon counter-narcotics official, testified at Tuesday's hearings.

The Pong Su's covert mission in southern Australia appears to have been a daring expansion into the Australian heroin market by a bankrupt regime increasingly desperate to stay afloat. The ship is owned by a company headquartered in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, and several of the arrested crew members were members of the ruling Korean Workers' Party.

'Smear Campaign'

The North Korean government has denied allegations that it was involved in the heroin delivery and says the charges are part of a U.S. "smear campaign" to increase international pressure on the regime to shut down its nuclear program.

The Australian government says it is investigating whether the communist regime was behind the smuggling enterprise. Officials and defectors said any other explanation would be hard to accept.

"North Korea is a socialist state. There is no private enterprise in North Korea," Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said after issuing a protest to the regime's ambassador.

"I am confident that the drugs seized [from the Pong Su] were North Korean products," a North Korean defector, whose name was withheld to protect his identity, told the Senate panel. The man, who wore a hood and was a former high-level government official who defected to South Korea in 1998, said he had direct knowledge of 30 other officials involved in narco-trafficking.

North Korea's narcotics business has long been overshadowed by the regime's program to build nuclear weapons. The Bush administration recently expressed concern that the regime may try to manufacture weapons-grade plutonium and smuggle it abroad. If so, the Pong Su's journey to Australia raises the possibility that the same method could be used to smuggle plutonium.

The North Korean government says that the Pong Su is a "civilian trading ship" and that its owner had no knowledge of the heroin.

According to shipping industry insiders, the Pong Su is the flagship of a commercial shipping company known as Pong Su Ship Management, which owns six vessels and has been expanding in recent years.

"The company is owned by North Korea," said Neil Tsang, a ship broker based in Taiwan who sold several vessels to the company and helps the firm lease them out for transporting products such as lumber, coal, steel and feldspar around Southeast Asia.

He said he doubts that company managers knew the ship was carrying drugs.

The company's manager, Kim Chu Nam, could not be reached by telephone at his office in Pyongyang.

It is unlikely that a North Korean company would be dealing drugs without government involvement, said Cho Sung Kwon, a South Korean criminologist who has advised his country's intelligence service on North Korea.

"North Korea is a socialist country, so everything is closely monitored and controlled," he said.

"It is not just the kind of state-sanctioned drug trafficking you might see in Latin America. It is state-sponsored."

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