- A.N. Other
- History - general
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- December 2019 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
By Dennis J. Weatherall
The end of the Vietnam War resulted in the arrival into Australia of Vietnamese refugees with the first, known as ‘Boat People’, arriving in Darwin on 26 April 1976. This developed further with asylum seekers coming from other South East Asian countries, and in response, the formation of Border Force and contentious offshore detention facilities. The illegal arrival of people is well documented but the attempted landing of illegal cargo such as narcotics is less well known. This article is therefore an important case study.
William Bach, a Director in the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs at the United States Department of State, says there have been at least 50 documented incidents from some 20 countries in the world linking drug trafficking to North Korea. These events, along with numerous allegations, paint a disturbing involvement of the North Korean government in large-scale drug trafficking. Unlike other countries where the drug business is operated by underground criminal organisations, in North Korea evidence indicates it was run by government operated trading companies.
North Korea started the secret production of drugs in the late 1970s in the mountains of the remote provinces of Hamgyong and Ryanggang. Legitimate exports declined dramatically in the late 1980s, so with support from Russia and China, North Korea started searching for new sources of foreign currency and began marketing and exporting drugs.
Operation Sorbet was the code name given by the Australian Federal Police (AFP) to specific investigations into drug importation into Australia. Persons of interest were placed under surveillance from the time they left their home ports and the surveillance continued until their arrival into Australia.
Out of a group of three targets, Yau Kim Lam and Kiam Fah Teng were of Chinese/Malaysian background, and the third was a Singaporean, named Wee Quay Tan. The latter had been in gaol in Denmark but escaped and found his way back to Singapore where, using a stolen Singaporean national passport, he assumed the name of Chin Kwang Lee. It seems Tan’s (Lee) criminal syndicate was quite well connected and able to contract a North Korean government-owned shipping company to deliver a cargo of heroin to Australia. All these men were said to be part of a transcontinental crime organisation which arranged for Lam and Teng to be flown to Australia.
MV Pong Su
Enter Pong Su, the drug running ship, a general cargo vessel, built in Japan by Shin Kurushima Hiroshima Dockyard. She was of 4,015 gross tons, 106 m in length with a 16 m beam. Originally named Kendaki No 6, she received a number of name changes until bought by North Korean interests in August 1998 and renamed Pong Su. The new owners were the Pongsu Shipping Company and her home port was Namp’o in North Korea. She joined a number of similar vessels owned by the company. In 2003 the vessel underwent special modifications, converting her ballast tanks into fuel tanks and thus considerably extending her range. She now had a complement of 30 officers and men, well above normal for such a relatively small vessel.
On 25 February 2003 Pong Su departed Namp’o for the Chinese ports of Tianjin, Xinggang and Yanti. At the latter, she uplifted 5,100 tons of feldspar, a mineral used in glass making and ceramics and as an additive in paint, plastics and rubber. After partially unloading this cargo, the ship advised Chinese authorities of its return to Namp’o, but instead headed to Ja Mae Do (North Korea). She only remained in this port for a few hours where it is understood heroin was loaded, together with Ta Song Wong, an important member of the drug syndicate.
The next port of call was Jakarta where the remainder of her cargo of feldspar was unloaded, before sailing for Singapore. On departure from Singapore, her crew manifest showed a total of thirty-two (32) crew although at this time she only had 30 men on board. These arrangements were put in place so that she could unofficially take on board Lam and Teng, now residing in Australia. While remaining under North Korean ownership, at some stage during the voyage she was re-registered in Tuvalu (formerly the Ellice Islands) and was flying this flag of convenience.
Arrival and drop-off in Australia
Pong Su, now light ship other than for the heroin, made a circuitous voyage around the north, west and south of Australia, heading for the Victorian coast. On 15 April 2003, as bad weather had settled in along the southern Victorian coast, local residents noticed a freighter (Pong Su) sailing no more than a kilometre from shore and making slow progress in the vicinity of Apollo Bay1 with its treacherous coastline. It seemed her drop-off point was to be nearby, a remote part of the coast consisting of narrow rocky beaches, cliffs with steep hills inland, covered with waist-high scrub, with a road running in and out of the shoreline.
The freighter was observed to anchor just off shore in heavy seas. It looked like the delivery of contraband was soon to take place, it was evening and the weather had deteriorated considerably. Although the drop-off wasn’t physically observed by the AFP, a dinghy (Zodiac type) was found capsized on the beach. It was now in the early hours of Wednesday 16 April, and the drugs had been landed and hidden in the scrub behind the beach. The ‘collectors’ were being tracked whilst the AFP were searching the Boggaley Creek area for the stash, of which 50 kilos were found but that left probably 100-125 kilos unaccounted for. Meanwhile, during an AFP search a body of Asian appearance was found apparently drowned, close to where the runabout had been discovered. Later another man from the ship, who was part of the drug landing party, was discovered and arrested. The AFP then rounded up the ‘acceptance party’ of three, placing them under arrest. The freighter was still sitting off the drop-off beach area.
Attention was then turned to the freighter to prevent her leaving Australian waters. However, as the sea state continued to worsen she raised anchor and headed southwest towards Wye River before turning south into Bass Strait. Although the freighter couldn’t be observed from shore, due to weather conditions, the AFP kept track of her via a chartered aircraft and this was later expanded by the presence of RAAF P3C Orion and C-130 Hercules aircraft.
By the time the freighter was underway the AFP had confirmed she was the elusive Pong Su and also knew her history, ownership, the fact the vessel had never visited Australia previously and that her home port and registration had recently been transferred from North Korea to Tuvalu. The AFP investigation immediately upgraded the event to the level of ‘International political Interest’. It was certain that the vessel and some of its crew were involved in the landing of the recently discovered heroin. By late afternoon the vessel had passed the regular shipping lanes into Melbourne and continued east towards the Tasman Sea. So began a police pursuit at sea.
As the situation escalated, senior Defence and Government officials were briefed. This included the Chief of Defence, General Peter Cosgrove, Defence Minister Robert Hill, Minister for Foreign Affairs Alexander Downer, and Prime Minister John Howard.
The vessel had to be intercepted at sea but there were few options immediately available. Sea conditions worsened and were expected to deteriorate further. There was no vessel large enough in close proximity, so help was requested from the Tasmanian Police. They dispatched their 23 m launch Van Diemen, which put to sea from Beauty Point. Onboard were the standard four crew plus two AFP officers, a Customs Officer and five members of the Tasmanian Police Force Special Operations Group, twelve in all. Van Diemen made radar contact with Pong Su a few hours after putting to sea. The vessel was proceeding south of the Bass Strait shipping lanes.
As dawn broke around 05.45 hours on Thursday 17 April, Van Diemen closed on Pong Su. The embarked Customs Officer demanded that the vessel heave to and head to the nearest port of Melbourne. The vessel was challenged again and told to enter Melbourne. After repeated instructions the vessel’s Radio Operator (RO) advised that the Captain must refer the matter and instructions to his government. The RO came back after some delay and declared the vessel was in international waters and therefore didn’t have to comply with the police instructions, the fact they were in Bass Strait and Australian coastal and territorial waters made the RO’s statement irrelevant.
Pong Su spun a series of tales all playing for time whilst still heading east. Eventually a message was received that the captain of the runaway vessel had nominated Sydney as the port of entry and inspection by Customs. The message was that they were in ballast and headed for PNG where they would collect a cargo of timber and head to an unspecified port. Coast Watch instructed the vessel to put into Eden (on the south coast of NSW) and it seemed the vessel was heading that way but the sea state was becoming increasingly worse.
Sometime in the afternoon it was decided by the senior Federal Police officer not to board the vessel due to the possibility that the crew of 30 could overpower any boarding party Van Diemen could muster. It was unknown if the freighter’s crew was armed. Pong Su tried once again to stall for time and stopped off Cape Howe (the eastern-most point on the Victorian-NSW border), some 100 km or five hours steaming from its now authorised inspection port of Eden.
By this time the crew of Van Diemen had been at sea in severe weather for some 24 hours. There was some sea-sickness, and the launch’s crew was beginning to feel the effects of their extended duty time. In response the Pong Suescort duty was taken over by the NSW police launch Fearless, smaller than Van Diemen at just 16 m in length. On the change of escort Van Diemen was ordered by Coast Watch to head in to Eden.
Pong Su’s next ruse was to feign a mechanical breakdown and she hoisted ‘Not under Command’ lights. With the swells running at between 3-4 m at the time as the vessel came to a dead stop and rode the undulating waves, Fearlessstood by as guard until the larger 22 m police launch Alert arrived on station from Sydney.
By daylight Friday 18 April (Good Friday) it was obvious Pong Su had no intention of putting in to Eden and she continued to drift on the swell. At 0700 the vessel restarted its engines and headed east away from Eden with Alert in pursuit.
A radio transmission was intercepted between Pong Su and North Korea telling the vessel to stop and fight the enemy. Using flamboyant rhetoric Pong Su responded with: As soldiers for the Great General we are determined to fight to the last man. The gloves were off and the chase was on.
The AFP Operational Commander had relocated overnight from Geelong, Victoria to Eden, NSW. His assessment was that it was highly unlikely Pong Su would surrender herself. There were now three new possibilities to stop and board the vessel.
- Send Van Diemen back out with special Federal Police tactical officers onboard and pass across the ship’s bows in an attempt to make the ship actually stop.
- Request the dispatch of a Royal Australian Navy warship with Special Forces and forcibly seize the ship.
- Dispatch Special Air Service (SAS) Forces and board the ship by helicopter.
All were possible and feasible. The final choice was to dispatch a warship with Special Forces. The closest naval base was Fleet Base East at Garden Island, Sydney. HMAS Stuart, an Anzac class frigate, was alongside in maintenance with most of her crew on Easter leave. A crew recall was activated, SAS personnel (a combined team from SASR Perth and 4RAR Holsworthy) embarked, and a Seahawk helicopter flown in from the Naval Air Station, Nowra. Naval clearance divers boarded, along with AFP and Customs officers. Stuart was ready and proceeded to sea.
The weather had further deteriorated with waves now 6-8 m and wind gusting at 30-40 knots. The police launches Fearless and Alert were battling heavy seas endeavouring to head south. The smaller Fearless took an extreme battering and several of its crew and passengers (AFP and Customs) were injured. At about this time the NSW Police 32 m Offshore Patrol Vessel Nemesis was dispatched from her base at Port Stephens to assist.
Stuart, under command of CMDR David Greaves RAN, sailed from Garden Island at 1930 and once clear of Sydney Heads her radar located Pong Su and her NSW Police pursuers. Although Stuart was in a position to intercept Pong Su on Saturday 19 April, the sea conditions were judged to be too rough. Stuart continued to shadow the vessel on radar while keeping below the horizon.
Both NSW Police vessels Alert and Nemesis were in sight of Pong Su and continued to order her into Sydney, to no avail. Once again both these vessels were hard pressed in the continuing rough sea state. Alert lost her radar when swamped by an 11 metre wave.
As the fourth day of the chase unfolded Pong Su was off Broken Bay and 100 nm east of the coast. The police vessels were employed to keep their prey within Australian Territorial waters, although the legal advice was Pong Su could still be arrested outside territorial waters as she was subject to ‘hot pursuit’ by Federal and State Police authorities.
Aboard Stuart, specialists had developed a plan to board the vessel and had been rehearsing their tactics, which included practising rappelling from the Seahawk and climbing over the ship’s side using rope ladders. At midday on 19 April the Federal agents in Stuart received their final briefing on apprehending a foreign vessel – stopping and boarding – under the Commonwealth of Australia Customs Act.
In Melbourne one of the arrested ‘shore party’ had volunteered information that he and his drowned partner had been on Pong Su and had landed in the dinghy found abandoned on the beach. The AFP now had strong evidence that the drugs found ashore came from Pong Su.
On Easter Sunday 20 April at 05.00, when about 70 nm northeast of Sydney Heads, Stuart closed Pong Su and the NSW police vessels were ordered away. Pong Su once again hoisted her ‘Not Under Command’ lights. Pong Su’s RO endeavoured to stall by advising Stuart the crew were asleep and the ship’s engines were again inoperative. Stuart’sresponse was straightforward: This is an Australian warship; I intend to board you! The inoperative engine miraculously sprang into life and the ship turned her bow towards Sydney.
Once the CO of Stuart made his intensions known to Pong Su, three Zodiacs were launched and on reaching Pong Sustarted boarding her over the ship’s side. The Seahawk hovered overhead and SAS troops rappelled aboard – it was now 07.34.
Just seven minutes later at 07.41, the SAS troops had secured the bridge. Evidence was collected, the crew gathered together and placed in the galley area. A detachment from Stuart now boarded as a steaming crew and took control of the ship which continued under escort to Sydney. The SAS troops kept watch over Pong Su’s crew and the Senior Military Officer handed over command to the designated Federal Police Agent aboard. This officer requested the SAS maintain guard on the crew and the naval steaming party take the arrested ship into Sydney Harbour.
At 15.00 on Sunday 20 April, a harbour pilot boarded and brought Pong Su into the Oil Wharf at Garden Island. Then the process of interrogation of all her crew started. Some required medical treatment for undisclosed ailments, but all were under arrest and held in custody. During the evening Customs and Federal Police started their internal compartment search of the vessel. She was found to be in an extremely poor state and full of rust, regardless of the freshly applied paint. This was evidently a ‘Band-Aid’ effort to make the vessel look as if she was in good shape.
On Tuesday 6 May, Pong Su was towed from Garden Island to a commercial berth in Darling Harbour for a full quarantine inspection. On Monday 12 May Pong Su was again moved from Darling Harbour to Snails Bay where she would remain as a legal exhibit.
In the meantime, from Tuesday 22 April legal proceedings commenced: 26 crewmen were extradited to Melbourne, followed by the captain and three other crew on Thursday 1 May. Officials from the North Korean Shipping Company, who owned the vessel, arrived in Australia and presented their credentials to the Federal Police. They also presented what turned out to be fake documentation showing that their vessel intended to load a cargo of luxury cars in Australia for Malaysia.
Federal Police once again revisited the area around the drug drop-off point at Boggaley Creek in Victoria and found an additional package of heroin buried in the soil and covered by bushes behind the beach.
A committal hearing under Victorian jurisdiction for illegal importation of drugs was initially held against the entire ship’s crew. This was scheduled for August 2003 but postponed until November while trying to find a court room that would hold all 34 defendants and their legal representatives. Eventually on Friday 5 March 2004, a magistrate committed four senior ship’s officers to stand trial and discharged the remaining 27 crew members due to lack of sufficient evidence to support a conviction. They were detained by the Department of Immigration as ‘unlawful entries’ and held at Baxter Detention Centre, in rural South Australia, to await deportation on 24 June 2004.
The four senior ship’s officers were:
Master – Song Man-Seon,
First Officer – Lee Man-Jin,
Chief Engineer – Lee Ju-Cheon,
Political Officer – Choe Dong-Song.
In a jury trial which began in August 2005 all pleaded not guilty. On 5 March 2006 the four accused were found not guilty and subsequently deported to North Korea three days later.
After having exhausted all other legal channels the four men arrested ashore in early 2005 (Kiam Fah Teng, Yau Kim Lam, Wee Quay Tan and Ta Song Wong) changed their pleas to guilty to aiding and abetting the importation of a commercial quantity of heroin. They stood trial for the importation of 125 kg of heroin; 25 kg was missing either in the capsized dinghy or somewhere ashore. This 125 kg of heroin had an estimated street value of AUD$14 million. In separate Supreme Court of Victoria trials extending from 10 February to 11 July 2005 all were found guilty and sentenced to between 22 and 24 years imprisonment, with extensive non parole periods of between 15 and 16 years.
The end of Pong Su
Since berthing at Sydney Harbour in April 2003 Pong Su had cost the Australian taxpayer AU$90,000 per month in harbour dues and other related fees. By 2006, the total bill was in excess of AU$2 million. The Pongsu Shipping Company, had tried numerous times to reclaim the ship, valued nominally at USD$200,000 – she also had some US$100,000 worth of fuel in her tanks.
Australian authorities had declared the vessel unseaworthy. After the trials, the Australian Government made it quite clear to North Korean authorities that Pong Su would never be returned, as she had been involved in a serious crime under Australian law. The problem for the AFP and Customs was how they were to dispose of the vessel.
In mid-2005 Defence suggested Pong Su should be sunk in a live-fire exercise, so long as she was well prepared and would not create an environmental hazard. On Tuesday 21 March 2006, Pong Su was taken under tow from Snails Bay and headed south to a point 140 km off Jervis Bay.
The last items to be removed from the ship were some 30 portraits of the ‘Great Leader’ of North Korea. These were handed to North Korean Embassy representatives in Canberra2. On the morning of Thursday 23 March, the drifting Pong Su was attacked by two RAAF F-111 strike aircraft using GBU-10 1,000 kg, laser guided bombs. So ended the last day of this North Korean drug runner.
Video showing the sinking of Pong Su is available via the following link: https://www.youtube. com/watch?v=AQeWD6hm6Ak. A podcast has also been recently released on: SMH.COM.AU/PONG-SU.
The Pong Su incident provides an important case study into the complexities of border protection. We are only told briefly of how the principal drug smugglers came to the attention of the AFP but there must be further information held by Australian national security agencies such as the Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) and the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS). At the beginning surveillance was being undertaken as part of Operation Sorbet, and this did not only involve the AFP but would also interest Defence, Coast Watch and Customs. As the operation progressed RAAF assets were required for enhanced surveillance and ASIS to monitor radio transmissions to and from the suspect vessel.
When the chase began state police forces from Tasmania, Victoria and New South Wales became involved and as the situation escalated Army and Navy assets were required. Now many political levels had to be briefed, from Prime Minister and Cabinet, Foreign Affairs, Attorney General, Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, etc. The trial involved Federal and State jurisdictions and even extended to detention facilities in South Australia.
Australia’s system of government is indeed complex with many levels of overlapping responsibilities. It is therefore pleasing that at the operational level the various jurisdictions appear to work together smoothly and this case was brought to a successful conclusion.
In retrospect we might ponder why the North Korean smugglers attempted such a prolonged and difficult operation. Would it not have been much easier to take a more direct route from Indonesia with the drugs hidden amongst innocent cargo and then offload these into a hired vessel off the coast of the Northern Territory or northern Queensland?
- Apollo Bay is on the picturesque Great Ocean Road about 200 km southwest of Melbourne.
- The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) first opened its embassy in Canberra in 1974 and Australia opened its embassy in Pyongyang in early 1975 but diplomatic relations were interrupted late in 1975. In 2002 the respective embassies were reopened but again closed in 2008. Since then diplomatic relations have been conducted by DPRK using its embassy in Jakarta and Australia via its embassy in Seoul.
Transcript MEC 30420/03 Joint Media Conference – Navy, Army, Federal Police, Customs and NSW Police
Heroin Trail Leads to North Korea – Washington Post, 12 May 2003
Record Heroin Haul Found – The Age, 17 April 2003
Sea Chase – Drug Trafficking Australia – Operation Sorbet, AFP Officer Jason Byrnes
Navy website HMAS Stuart III – FFH 153 ANZAC Class Frigate
Pong Su Crew Extraction Hearing, 22 April 2003
North Korean Freighter Pong Su to be Sunk, Sydney Morning Herald, AAP 21 March 2006
News article: North Korea Drug Ship to be sunk 22 March 2006
Video News clip of the sinking of the Pong Su off the NSW south coast Thursday 23 March 2006
Wikipedia Pong Su Incident world-wide post