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."