Archive for May, 2003

US congressmen visit N Korea

Friday, May 30th, 2003


Six US congressmen have begun a visit to North Korea, hoping to ease tensions in the crisis over the North’s suspected nuclear weapons programmes.

They are the first US officials to be invited to the North since the nuclear crisis erupted in October, but they have made clear they are not travelling as envoys of the US Government.

The congressmen describe their visit as a “fact finding mission”.

They have asked for a tour of the controversial nuclear complex at Yongbyon which has been at the centre of the nuclear stand-off, but it is not clear whether this will take place.

The North Korean authorities announced that they were reactivating the plant following a US decision to suspend oil shipments to the country over suspicions that a secret uranium enrichment programme was underway.

The congressmen are expected to meet the chairman of the North Korean parliament, Kim Yong Nam, and visit various institutions including a school, a factory and a church.

Territorial waters dispute

The delegation leader, Curt Weldon, said they would be making clear that the world was ready to help economically and provide humanitarian help, but only if the North Koreans were prepared to completely close down their nuclear programme.

The visit follows another warning from North Korea to the South over the alleged violation of territorial waters.

A statement on the official news agency said such provocative acts could lead to “irrevocable serious consequences”.

The agency said four South Korean navy boats sailed into Northern waters on Thursday, following incursions by 16 warships on Wednesday and three on Tuesday.

South Korea has denied the accusations and said that fishing boats from the North had violated the sea border on three successive days this week.


N Korea ship ‘heroin haul found’

Tuesday, May 27th, 2003

From the BBC:

Australian police say they have found another 75 kilograms of heroin that were smuggled into the country by a North Korean ship seized in a raid last month.

Australian special forces boarded the freighter, the Pong Su, after 50 kg of heroin were found in a vehicle in April, sparking a diplomatic row between the two countries.

A police spokesman says the 75 kg of heroin were found buried in bushes on the south-east coast of Australia.

It is the same area in which 50 kg of heroin were seized from a vehicle in April.

Diplomatic row

The spokesman says this latest batch appears to be identical in form and packaging.

Together the drugs haul is one of the biggest ever recorded in Australian history.

Police believe the drugs came from the Pong Su, which was raided by Australian special forces after the first batch of heroin was discovered.

About 30 crew members were arrested and charged with drug smuggling.

They included an official from North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party, which led to a diplomatic row after the Australian Government issued a protest to North Korea.

Australia is one of the few Western countries to maintain formal contacts with Pyongyang, but this incident has tested that relationship.

It has also been cited by officials in the United States, who say it is evidence the North Korean Government is involved in illegal activities, including drug smuggling.



North Korea is said to export drugs to get foreign currency

Wednesday, May 21st, 2003

New York Times
May 21, 2003
James Dao

Here are the excerpts:

North Korean government has been overseeing the production of heroinand methamphetamine to bolster its foreign currency reserves, according to defector who testified in the US senate.

In 1997 all collective farms were ordered to dedicate 25 acres to poppy cultivation.  They also hired experts from Thailand to supervise the refining of the poppies.

The testimony cannot be independently verified, but south Korean intelligence verified the defector’s identity. 


Koreas brought together by film

Thursday, May 15th, 2003


The divided Korean peninsula is set to be brought together by a feature film set during unified Korea’s resistance to Japanese colonisation in the 1900s.

Arirang, a South Korean film, which opens simultaneously in the North and South next week, will be the first feature from Seoul to be shown on both sides of the Korean border, according to the South’s Korean Herald.

Since war separated the two neighbours in the 1950s, there has been little chance for Koreans from either side to watch productions by the other.

“It will be good for reconciliation if we can encourage more cultural exchanges like this,” said the film’s director Lee Doo-yong.

But Arirang may fare very differently in the two Koreas, when it opens on 23 May. The countries are reported to have deeply divergent tastes in films.

Arirang tells the story of a young Korean man who loses his sanity after being tortured by the Japanese.

The theme is likely to be popular in the North, whose founder and first president, Kim Il-sung, was the leader of pro-independence guerrillas.

His son, current leader Kim Jong-il, has also criticised Tokyo for its repressive regime during the Korean occupation.

Most North Korean films tell traditional folk stories or advertise the communist government’s regime, so Arirang may well prove a refreshing alternative for audiences in Pyongyang.

“The film shows the happiness and sadness of life,” Mr Lee told the Associated Press news agency. “North Koreans seemed to be very moved by it.”

But south of the border, audiences have a tendency to shun traditional movies, according to the Korean Herald.

The fact that the sequel to the Matrix opens on the same day as Arirang may also lower attendance figures in South Korea.

Past films made in the North have not fared well in Seoul.

In July 2000, a Northern film called Pulgasari – a version of Godzilla – was seen by an audience of less than 1,000 South Koreans, according to the Korean Herald.

Kidnapped director

Pulgasari was one of the many films produced by Shin Sang-ok, a South Korean film director who was kidnapped with his wife in the 1970s to produce films for the North’s leader, Kim Jong-il.

Mr Kim is a famed film enthusiast, and is said to have a library of 20,000 Hollywood movies.

He has even opened a film school in impoverished Pyongyang.

Arirang’s director, Mr Lee, said he was not too concerned about being kidnapped when he visited the North last year to gain approval for his film’s showing.

“But I must admit I was a little nervous when entering Pyongyang,” he told the Associated Press.


Heroin trail leads to North Korea

Monday, May 12th, 2003

From the Washington Post:

For nearly a month, agents of the Australian police had been shadowing three men, expecting them to receive a shipment of drugs — from somewhere. This seemed the night: Detectives had followed the three to a desolate, windswept beach on Australia’s southern coast.

As the suspects waited there in the midst of a storm, the worst in years, the agents peered through sheets of rain and saw an extraordinary sight: a North Korean freighter, maneuvering dangerously close to rocks and coral reefs.

Soon a dinghy was fighting its way toward shore carrying 110 pounds of almost pure heroin, stamped with the best brand from Southeast Asia’s clandestine drug labs, police say. Proceeds from the drugs would go to prop up the impoverished North Korean government, they believe.

This was followed by a dramatic, four-day chase of the freighter through angry seas. By the time it ended on April 20 with Australian special forces soldiers sliding down ropes from a helicopter onto the ship’s rolling deck, the vessel had become the centerpiece of a major diplomatic uproar and another obstacle to solving the tense standoff between North Korea and the United States over North Korea’s nuclear program.

U.S. officials say the capture is proof of their long-standing charge that the North Korean government has for years operated as a crime syndicate, smuggling drugs and counterfeit money around the world to generate income to keep itself alive.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell recently told a Senate committee the seizure shows that North Korea “thrives on criminality.” Any conciliation with the communist state, he told reporters last week, must include an end to its nuclear program and “criminal activities.”

That was a tough, new condition, applied as the world grapples with the communist government’s claim that it already possesses nuclear weapons. And the saga of the freighter Pong Su illustrates that finding and stopping North Korean drug trafficking can be immensely difficult.

North Korean officials called Powell’s charge “slanderous” and denied any knowledge of drug smuggling. But North Korean diplomats have regularly been caught since the 1970s smuggling drugs in diplomatic packages through China, Russia, Laos, Egypt and elsewhere. Defectors from North Korea have described government efforts to grow opium for heroin production in the country’s rugged mountains. The most recent U.S. Narcotics Control Strategy report, however, cautions that those reports “refer to events that are now more than 10 years old, and remain unconfirmed.”

Australian authorities say the Pong Su picked up the heroin elsewhere in Asia, and that the ship’s circuitous route to Australia may indicate North Korea is expanding its role as a middleman, willing to ply faraway waters for desperately needed income.

There are no reliable estimates of how much money North Korea may derive from the illicit trade. But the figure will be of crucial concern if the United States tries to organize economic sanctions against North Korea to force it out of the nuclear weapons business.

Japan and Taiwan have long alleged that North Korean ships smuggle amphetamines to their citizens, and Western intelligence analysts have long believed that the country cultivates opium. But the capture of the freighter and 30 crew members offers the most dramatic, public link to the drug trade to date.

Australia’s foreign minister, Alexander Downer, brusquely dismissed North Korea’s denials that any smuggling was officially sanctioned. “It’s a totalitarian state, so [the ship] is government-owned,” he said. Australia, he told the grim-faced North Korean ambassador who was summoned to his office, is “outraged” at the prospect that it is the target of North Korean drug trafficking.

The vessel’s captain and 29 crewmen are being held in Australia without bail on drug charges. At an initial court appearance April 24 in Melbourne, Legal Aid lawyer Maria Stylianou said prosecutors have not presented evidence that the crewmen knew about the heroin and called them “people who arguably would have had no knowledge at all.”

Legal analysts predict that when prosecutors present detailed charges within a month, they will use the agents’ testimony and the ship’s lack of legitimate business in a region thousands of miles from its home port to argue that the vessel and its crew had only one purpose in coming to Australian waters: to traffic in drugs.

North Korea has few sources of income for its stricken economy. Many factories are idled for lack of parts, electricity is scarce, farming is primitive, and millions of people depend on international charity for food. Its main sources of foreign exchange, helping it maintain a million-member armed forces, analysts contend, are missile sales and dealings in drugs and counterfeit currency.

Australian officials who examined the Pong Su at a naval base where it was taken say it had been specially equipped with extra fuel tanks, enabling it to roam long distances. On its stern they found two unusually large antennas, enabling communications from afar. When it was seized, it had no freight aboard and had no port calls scheduled in Australia.

“It was fitted to smuggle contraband,” said Graham Ashton, southern operations manager for the Australian Federal Police.

And it was a busy ship, tramping around Asian ports, stopping at more than 20 ports in the last year, according to one report here.

The Pong Su is also on a U.S. list of 30 suspected drug merchant vessels worldwide, one source said. But when it showed up on April 16 off the southern coast of Australia near Lorne, a seaside vacation village southwest of Melbourne, it was a surprise to the Australian Federal Police agents trailing the trio of suspected dealers.

The three, identified as Kiam Fah Teng, 45, and Yau Kim Lam, 44, from Malaysia, and Qwang Lee, 34, of Singapore, had entered Australia on tourist visas. But police believed they came to make the connection between a large shipment of drugs and a nationwide network of dealers. So authorities quietly began watching their moves and listening through eavesdropping equipment, according to federal agent Ian McCartney, coordinator of what became known as Operation Sorbet.

Authorities had no reason to suspect the shipment would come on a North Korean ship, never before implicated as a drug source in Australia. But on that stormy Wednesday night, police say, the agents watched as the Pong Su maneuvered to within about 250 yards of shore at a rugged and isolated spot called Boggally Creek.

Police allege that despite the high seas, two crewmen clambered into a rubber dinghy and headed toward a meeting place on shore. It was a fatal miscalculation.

The waves tossed the dinghy like a toy. As it neared shore, it flipped over. One crewman struggled to dry land. The other drowned. His body washed up on shore, along with two tightly wrapped blue plastic bundles, containing 144 blocks of high-purity heroin.

Agents watched coolly as Teng and Lee scooped up the bags, threw them into a van, and drove to a local motel. The police waited until the next morning to arrest them, moving in as the suspects started to drive away.

In the back of the van were the neat blocks of heroin, each pressed and stamped with a distinctive red seal featuring two lions and the words Double UOGlobe Brand. It is a brand of distinction in the heroin world, identifying top-quality drugs from the Golden Triangle region of Burma, Laos and Cambodia. Police said the street value of the haul would be nearly $50 million.

The third man, Lam, was nabbed at a nearby motel. The surviving crewman who came ashore was found during a police search, shivering and hiding in brushes near the beach. “He was cold, a long way from home, and in a lot of trouble,” said McCartney. All four were later charged with drug offenses.

A police launch put to sea to hail the Pong Su, demanding that it head into harbor. Instead, the ship began steaming away up the eastern coast. For the police, it was the equivalent of a crook in a getaway car, a “hot pursuit.”

The rules that would allow Australia to seize the Pong Su required that the ship be kept in constant surveillance from the scene of the heroin drop. But given the storm, even keeping sight of the freighter was difficult for police.

A police launch from Tasmania took the first shift. The Pong Su, riding high in the water with no freight, rolled and pitched in the seas. But for the comparatively tiny police launch, the punishment was brutal. The men aboard it were soon sick and exhausted. “They got hammered pretty bad,” said New South Wales Police Sgt. Joe McNulty.

Another police launch, the Fearless, took over the next night. The waves were so tall, “you get over one wave and you’re in a free fall. You land and the next one hits,” said Sgt. James Hinkley, who skippered the boat. At one point, he found the Fearless surfing down a wave on its side, the keel horizontal.

But the police launch, with siren wailing and flashing lights, darted around the Pong Su. The officers radioed repeated demands to head into harbor. The ship’s radio operator acknowledged the messages, but said it would not comply. Eventually the vessel stopped replying.

The 72-foot patrol boat Alert, the largest vessel of the New South Wales Police, then headed south under McNulty’s command to pick up the surveillance in the still-punishing seas.

The police pursuit was tenacious, “like a bunch of terriers,” said one maritime official, but a bigger dog was needed. A call went out to the navy.

In Sydney, Cmdr. David Greaves of the Royal Australian Navy was preparing to let the crew of his frigate HMAS Stuart go home for an Easter holiday. The 387-foot vessel was in dock, undergoing maintenance. But on Friday, April 18, Greaves was ordered to sea to intercept the Pong Su.

Teams of army special operations soldiers were flying in from Perth, 2,400 miles away, to take part in an assault from the Stuart. After six hours of hasty preparations, it launched, with Greaves offering up as a cover story to his crew a vague explanation about a search and rescue operation.

The next day, the Stuart positioned itself over the horizon from the Pong Su and ran through a practice drill, 90 miles from shore. The seas and wind were slowly subsiding, and Greaves decided to launch the assault at daybreak.

Australia’s maritime commander, Rear Adm. Raydon Gates, who was monitoring from the Navy’s Operations Center in Sydney, provided this account: The Stuart “came over the horizon at 27 knots, full speed, spray all over, with a five-inch gun on the bow, helicopter in the air adding to the noise, and suddenly ropes drop and men are dropping down even before the ropes hit.”

Sliding untethered 90 feet down with only gloves, the special forces soldiers hit the deck and stormed the bridge as other soldiers in two rubber boats moved in from the Stuart, threw grappling hooks and ladders onto the ship, and scrambled aboard.

Within minutes, the crew was under guard in the mess hall, and the soldiers were searching the ship. None of the detainees put up a fight. If there was any incriminating evidence, it had all been thrown overboard or burned.

For Australian authorities, who lauded the cooperation among military, state and local police and other agencies, the seizure in such menacing weather has been a source of great pride, with Gates calling it a “tremendous feat of seamanship.” For McNulty, who struggled to steer the police patrol boat Alert as it was tossed like a can by the seas, the motivation was the kind of personal affront felt by a cop to a crime on his beat.

“You owe it to yourself, the police, and to the kids on the street who would have gotten that heroin,” he said. “You don’t want some ship from North Korea coming to your doorstep and dropping off drugs.”


N Korea denies drug trafficking

Tuesday, May 6th, 2003


North Korea has denied any involvement in a drug smuggling case in Australia.

North Korea’s state news agency KCNA said the government was consistently opposed to drug smuggling and that the case was “orchestrated to do harm to [North Korea]”.

It was the North’s first comment on the case since an official from North Korea’s ruling party was found on board a ship accused of bringing A$80m (US$50m) worth of heroin into Australia.

Australia’s Foreign Minister Alexander Downer summoned North Korea’s ambassador to Australia and alleged that Pyongyang was involved in the incident.

KCNA said the scandal over the Pong Su freighter was “part of Washington’s moves to increase the international pressure on the DPRK”.

“We will closely watch how the case is dealt with and never tolerate any attempt to use the case for impairing the authority and dignity of the DPRK,” KCNA added.

About 30 North Koreans who were on board the ship are facing trial in Melbourne over the incident.

This is not the first time North Korea has been accused of supplementing its failing economy by trafficking drugs.

Japanese officials have repeatedly accused Pyongyang of bringing methamphetamines and other drugs into their country.

In March, Japanese coast guards discovered drugs in a fishing boat which had travelled from North Korea.


N Korea accused over drugs haul

Friday, May 2nd, 2003

from the BBC:

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer has expressed concern over North Korea’s possible role in trafficking drugs to Australia.

Mr Downer’s comments came after an official from North Korea’s ruling Worker’s Party was found on board a state-owned ship accused of bringing A$80m (US$50m) worth of heroin into Australia.

“Whilst we can’t prove that the government made the decision to send this ship… we are concerned that instrumentalities of the government may have been involved in this,” Mr Downer said.

“We are concerned because the ship is Korean-owned and it’s a totalitarian state, so in effect it is government-owned,” he added.

Mr Downer said he had arranged a meeting with North Korea’s ambassador to Australia, Chon Jae-hong, to discuss the issue.

Australian intelligence services raided the Pong Su freighter last month, off the country’s east coast.

The Australian forces seized the heroin and arrested approximately 30 crew members, most of whom are now awaiting trial in Melbourne.

This is not the first time North Korea has been accused of supplementing its failing economy by trafficking drugs.

Japanese officials have repeatedly accused Pyongyang of bringing methamphetamines and other drugs into their country.

In March, Japanese coast guards discovered drugs in a fishing boat which had travelled from North Korea.

‘Peaceful solution’

In a separate development, China and South Korea have agreed to continue seeking a peaceful solution to the dispute over North Korea’s suspected nuclear programme.

The agreement came during a telephone conversation between South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun and his Chinese counterpart, Hu Jintao.

Mr Roh thanked China for hosting last week’s talks in Beijing between North Korea and the United States, which both leaders are said to have described as “useful”.

The three-way talks in Beijing were the first high-level US-North Korean contact since the nuclear crisis erupted last year, when Washington said Pyongyang had admitted to a secret nuclear programme in violation of a 1994 treaty.

Japan sent its defence minister to India on Friday in a bid to seek support for its campaign to clamp down against North Korea’s nuclear threat.

“As Japan is directly threatened by any such weapons Pyongyang may possess, Tokyo would want to build a world opinion on the issue,” a senior diplomat told AFP.