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North Korean drug ship to be sunk

The Pong Su heads for Sydney, after its seizure by Australian authorities in April 2003.


North Korea

SYDNEY, Australia (CNN) -- The North Korean drug ship Pong Su is to be destroyed off the Australian east coast later this week.

The Australian Federal Police said the freighter, used in a botched attempt to import 125 kilograms of heroin into Australia three years ago, will be sunk in a Defence Force exercise.

The Pong Su was towed out to sea from Sydney Harbor on Tuesday night.

The 3,500-ton ship was seized by Australian authorities at sea after a four-day chase along the southeastern coast in April 2003. Earlier it had dropped two men in a rubber boat carrying the drugs -- worth about $160 million -- off the coast of Victoria state, near Melbourne.

One of the two crewmen died as the rubber boat tried to come ashore, while the other crewman from the Pong Su and three men in a shore party were arrested and later convicted on drug charges. They were sentenced to jail terms of up to 23 years.

But four Pong Su officers accused of aiding and abetting the importation of the heroin were acquitted by an Australian jury earlier this month.

Their seven-month case was heard in the Victorian Supreme Court. Those acquitted were the Pong Su's captain Man Sun Song, political officer Dong Song Choi, first mate Man Jin Ri and chief engineer Ju Chon Ri.

The court heard that the ship's owner, the Pong Su Shipping Co., was controlled by the Korean Workers Party.

Maintenance cost

It has cost Australia about $2 million to maintain the Pong Su in Sydney, authorities say. It was seized by Australian soldiers, police and customs officers aboard a naval vessel as the freighter sailed north off the Australian east coast in April 2003.

The taxpayer-funded legal defense of the four acquitted North Koreans has been estimated to have cost another $2 million, according to Australian Associated Press.

The Australian Federal Police said that its request, the ship would be sunk about 140 kilometers (85 miles) off the south coast of New South Wales state later this week as part of an Australian Defence Force Exercise.

Inclement weather delayed the sinking, originally planned for Wednesday. An F-111 fighter bomber is expected to sink the ship.

Despite the acquittal of the Pong Su's captain and political officer, AFP officers believe North Korea's government must have been involved to some extent in the drug smuggling operation.

AFP chief Mick Keelty said earlier this month that an operation of this size "clearly.... doesn't get under way without some sort of ... significant support," the Australian Associated Press reported.

According to the U.S. State Department, North Korea likely "earns hundreds of millions of dollars from the sale of missiles, narcotics and counterfeit items such as cigarettes, pharmaceuticals, and U.S. currency."

The money is used to prop up the country's poor economic state, which has been exacerbated by the vast amounts spent on maintaining its strong military.

Under the hard line communist regime of Kim Jong-Il, North Korea's economy has faltered in recent years, hit hard by poor harvests, bad weather and decrepit infrastructure, including a lack of electric power. Many of the country's 22 million citizens suffer from food shortages.

The U.S. State Department's International Narcotics Control and Strategy Report 2006, released on March 1, noted that North Koreans have been apprehended trafficking in narcotics and engaging in other illicit activities for decades.

Given developments during 2005 that linked the North Korean government to "other forms of state-directed criminality," the report says, the State Department reaffirmed its opinion that "it is likely, but not certain, that the North Korean government sponsors criminal activities, including narcotics production and trafficking, in order to earn foreign currency for the state and its leaders."

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