Pong Su incident
The Pong Su incident began in April 2003 when Australian military personnel from Special Operations Command intercepted the Pong Su, a North Korean ocean freighter in Australian territorial waters. The ship was suspected of being involved in smuggling almost 150 kg (330 pounds) of heroin into Australia.
The Pong Su (봉수호) was a 349-foot (106 m), 3,743-tonne ocean freighter registered in Tuvalu and North Korean owned. The ship was flying the flag of Tuvalu, a flag of convenience. Four men arrested on shore were convicted of importing heroin, the crew were all acquitted and deported, and the ship was destroyed in 2006.
On 16 April 2003, police in Australia observed the Pong Su close to shore at Boggaley Creek near the seaside town of Wye River in Victoria and followed two suspects on the shore as they left the beach and headed for a nearby hotel. The next morning, the two suspects were apprehended after leaving their hotel with 50 kg of pure heroin. Then, in a search of the beach at Boggaley Creek, Australian police discovered the body of a man of East Asian appearance covered by seaweed close to a dinghy.
It was speculated that the dinghy had capsized landing the heroin, drowning one of the crew. Police also apprehended another man in the immediate area. Unable to get back to his boat, he had simply remained in the area where the drugs came ashore the night before. A fourth suspect was also taken into custody. A further 75 kg of heroin in similar packaging was later discovered buried near Wye River in May 2003 after subsequent searches following coordinates from a seized GPS device.
The Australian government ordered the Pong Su into harbour; however, the ship attempted to escape into international waters. After a four-day chase, known as Operation Sorbet, the Pong Su was captured after Australian Army Special Operations Forces stormed the ship in a helicopter landing. The Pong Su was secured and brought into port in Sydney. Searches of the ship by Australian authorities revealed the ship had been modified for long voyages and was carrying enough fuel and provisions to travel around the world without needing to port.
Some 30 men were arrested and detained. It was alleged that the North Korean government was involved in the manufacture and trade of the drugs. The North Korean government stated the ship was a 'civilian trading ship', and the ship's owner had no knowledge of the illegal cargo.
The four men arrested on shore pleaded guilty to aiding and abetting the importation of a commercial quantity of heroin. They were sentenced to between 22 and 24 years imprisonment. They were apparently not North Korean origin (but from Malaysia, Singapore and China) and not part of the ship's crew.
The suspects, the captain and crew of the Pong Su were charged with narcotics trafficking. Most significantly, an official of the governing Korean Workers' Party was found on board, linking the drug shipment to Kim Jong-il's government. According to Australian media reports, he had served as senior envoy in Pyongyang's embassy in Beijing. The Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer called in the North Korean Ambassador to lodge a formal protest.
Drug charges were laid against the ship's entire crew. Twenty-seven crew members were discharged on 5 March 2004 by a magistrate on the basis that there was insufficient evidence for them to stand trial. While awaiting deportation, the crew were held in Baxter Detention Centre; during which time they were questioned by federal authorities. They were deported from Australia on 24 June 2004.
Four senior crew members were kept in Australia to face a jury trial. They were:
- Choe Dong-song (최동성), 61, the ship's political secretary
- Song Man-seon (송만선), 65, the ship's captain
- Lee Man-jin (이만진), 51, the first officer
- Lee Ju-cheon (이주천), 51, the chief engineer
All four crew members pleaded not guilty at the beginning of their trial in August 2005.
The prosecution case against the four North Korean officers was that they would not have allowed their ship to be stopped in the position it was if they were not aware that the real purpose of their voyage was to smuggle the heroin. The prosecution did not allege any official involvement of the North Korean government, only the officers on board the ship.
Fate of the Pong Su
After capture the ship was brought to Sydney Harbour where it was originally moored at Garden Island naval base, Woolloomooloo. From there it was taken to Snails Bay, and moored for over two years, where it was reportedly costing over $2,500 a day for maintenance and security. It was taken to Chowder Bay in early 2006 while authorities decided what to do with it.
Authorities eventually decided to scuttle the ship and on 23 March 2006, in a joint RAAF and RAN military exercise, the Pong Su was sunk by two 2000-pound (907 kg) laser-guided bombs dropped from RAAF F-111 aircraft. The deliberate destruction of the freighter was said to deliver a strong message to international drug smuggling rings that the AFP and Commonwealth Government would take all measures necessary to stop illegal drug importation.
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