[Analytics] When drugs came to town: The Last Voyage of the Pong Su

The North Korean drug-running vessel the Pong Su being brought into Sydney Harbour under police guard in 2003. CREDIT: ROBERT PEARCE. Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

The hulking cargo ship was floating so close to the Great Ocean Road shoreline that local boys tried to hit it by throwing stones. The full story of the North Korean drug ship can now finally be told. Richard Baker specially for The Sydney Morning Herald.

The hulking cargo ship first became visible from the Great Ocean Road shoreline on the afternoon of April 15, 2003.

Residents of the coastal hamlets of Lorne and Wye River see big ships pass by every day on their way to Melbourne, but this was something else. The 106-metre-long Motor Vessel Pong Su lurched to within 500 metres of the jagged rocks that adorn the shoreline in these parts. It came so close that two teenagers playing out on rocks near Wye River tried throwing stones to hit it.

The Southern Ocean was powering a huge Easter swell that day and the surf was the heaviest in years. The Pong Su was taking a pounding. So much so that some locals feared Australia’s notorious Shipwreck Coast might be about to claim another casualty.

“’What the f—, you’re gonna get washed on the rocks’. That was my first impression,” is how lifelong Lorne resident Dick Davies remembers his first glimpse of the ship late that afternoon. “Then I thought, ‘Ah no, they’ve broken down, the poor bastards’.”

On board the Pong Su were 30 men, led by their 64-year-old skipper, Master Song Man-sun, and political secretary Choi Dong-song. None of the crew had ever been this far from their homeland of North Korea. Indeed, to get this far the ship had to have specially modified fuel tanks. And along the way it changed its flag from North Korea’s to the tiny Pacific nation of Tuvalu.

Under cover of darkness that night, the crew launched a high-risk, high-reward operation from the deck of the Pong Su to bring 150 kilograms of heroin ashore. The amount was the record heroin importation into Victoria at the time and valued well above $100 million.

What followed was four days of high drama as the botched importation escalated into a major international incident which ultimately caused Australian prime minister John Howard to authorise military action to seize the ship off the coast of NSW.

On Tuesday, The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald will launch a new 10-part investigative podcast: The Last Voyage of the Pong Su. It features Australian Federal Police surveillance material previously unheard by the public, as well as interviews with key participants in the drama speaking out for the first time.

You can subscribe right now, for free, on iTunes, Google Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you find your podcasts, to get all the episodes as soon as they’re available.

The podcast gives the fullest account yet of the Pong Su’s story from three different and very human perspectives: those of the North Korean crew, the footsoldiers of the Asian drug syndicate sent to take hold of the drugs and the federal police tasked with stopping the heroin from hitting the streets of Melbourne and Sydney.

The series also contains fresh revelations linking heroin traffickers to the North Korean regime, which has consistently denied any involvement or knowledge of the purpose of the Pong Su’s Australian journey. It is reported and produced by the team behind The Age and Herald’s previous investigative podcast series, Wrong Skin and Phoebe’s Fall.

A special cargo

The Pong Su was built in Japan in 1980 to carry bulk goods like timber or mineral sands. But when the ship entered Australian waters in 2003, the only cargo was two special passengers picked up en route and six 25-kilogram packages of heroin.

Around midnight on April 15, 2003, a small motorised rubber dinghy was lowered into the rough sea. Inside the dinghy was the heroin and its two male chaperones. On shore, in a deserted beachside car park at a place called Boggaley Creek, about a 12-minute drive west of Lorne, a fit and strong Asian man was waiting.

This man had arrived by plane in Sydney three weeks earlier. He used a false passport to conceal his true identity and nationality. He was working with two other Asian male colleagues who, like him, were only planning to be temporary visitors.

What the trio did not know was that they had been under constant police surveillance for more than a week, with many of their conversations secretly recorded by a listening device hidden in a rental car.

Out at sea, the men in the dinghy were struggling. Buffeted by three-metre waves, their brand new outboard motor suddenly cut out. A huge wave smashed down and the dinghy capsized, catapulting the men into the ocean.

One hit his head on rocks and drowned. The other, who later gave police the name of Ta Sa-wong, somehow survived. Intent on his mission, he recovered all but one bag of heroin and made it to shore. There he gave the packages to the man in the car park, who in turn called his colleagues and told them to get to the beach as quickly as possible.

They loaded the heroin into two vehicles and buried the dead man in a makeshift grave, covering him with kelp and rock. All the chaos at the windswept beach was captured by the police listening device inside a nearby car.

But the police would wait until daybreak before they struck.

Living in interesting times

The North Korea that the Pong Su’s crew left behind as they set off on their Australian journey in February 2003 was making the rest of the world extremely anxious. The country’s enigmatic leader, the big-haired Kim Jong-il (father of current supreme leader Kim Jong-un), had just withdrawn from the global nuclear non-proliferation treaty. He cautioned the United States against any retaliatory military action, warning a “third world war” would ensue.

It was the latest in a series of verbal jousts between Kim senior and then US president George W. Bush. In his 2002 State of the Union address, Mr Bush famously declared North Korea to be part of an “axis of evil” along with Iran and Iraq. The rogue nation was, he said, “a regime arming with missiles and weapons of mass destruction while starving its citizens”.

At the time of the Pong Su’s 2003 incursion, Australia was a nation intensely focused on security. Two mass terror attacks, the 2002 Bali bombings and the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, had raised genuine fears of a terrorist atrocity on home soil.

Border security dominated the political debate in Australia and military action abroad. Mr Howard committed Australian troops to US-led invasions of Afghanistan and, just weeks before the Pong Su appeared along the Great Ocean Road, to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

The unexpected arrival of the Pong Su also revived memories of another recent infamous maritime incident off the coast of Australia: the 2001 Tampa affair in the Indian Ocean. The MV Tampa was a Norwegian freighter which had rescued more than 400 Australia-bound asylum seekers after the rickety fishing boat carrying them towards Christmas Island failed.

Worried by a spate of boat arrivals, the government was refusing the Tampa permission to enter Australian waters and directed Norwegian captain Arne Rinnan to take his new passengers back to Indonesia. Captain Rinnan refused. A stalemate ensued and Norway referred Australia to the United Nations for an alleged breach of its international humanitarian obligations.

Eventually, the incident was resolved by the deployment of Australia’s elite Special Air Services regiment to board and seize control of the vessel.

An Australian Army vessel patrols the waters near the Norwegian freighter Tampa in 2001.
An Australian Army vessel patrols the waters near the Norwegian freighter Tampa in 2001. CREDIT:AP

Less than two years later, the same tactic was used to bring the Pong Su and the North Koreans to heel. An incident that began near quiet little Lorne had now attracted the attention of some of the world’s most powerful people.

In May 2003, Mr Bush’s secretary of state, Colin Powell, told the US Senate that North Korea’s involvement in drug trafficking into Australia was proof that Kim Jong-il’s regime “thrives on criminality”.

Flat tyre

As the sun rose on the morning of April 16, 2003, federal police agents and heavily armed tactical response specialists were on standby all over Lorne. Many were hiding around the car park of Lorne’s historic Grand Pacific Hotel. This was where two of the three-man shore party sent by a major Asian drug syndicate had stayed overnight as they waited to receive the heroin from the Pong Su and deliver it to the Australian buyer.

Given the value of the cargo and the high stakes for everyone involved, it was perplexing that the men had left two 25-kilogram packages lying in the back of their rental van and visible to anyone looking through the window.

Police were not expecting the two men to emerge from their motel room until later in the morning – it had been a late night after all.

But just before 7am, the pair walked towards their Toyota Tarago. They noticed and then ignored a tyre that police had deliberately flattened overnight in the hope the shore party would need to physically move the heroin from the car boot to access the spare tyre. This was the moment police had planned to strike in order to catch the men with their hands on the heroin.

But instead of changing the tyre, the men shrugged their shoulders and drove off down the hill towards Lorne’s main shopping strip.

Police radios crackled to life and soon the Tarago was rammed by police cars from the front and back.

Australian Federal Police display the heroin seized in the Pong Su operation.
Australian Federal Police display the heroin seized in the Pong Su operation.CREDIT:JAMES DAVIES

Watching the action unfold was local Lorne character Dick Davies, the same man who had feared the Pong Su might hit the rocks the previous afternoon.

“Here’s about 80 federal cops, just in the middle of the road. Got blokes hunched over the boots of cars like this,” he recalls, acting out how police cuffed the suspects. Nothing like this had ever happened in Lorne before. But then Davies made the connection: “Straight away I knew something. I thought to myself, ‘This is this f—ing boat’.”

That was day one of the story of the Pong Su. Sixteen years on, it is still playing out.

Richard Baker is a multi-award winning investigative reporter for The Age.

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