World leaders continue to consult on how to deal with the North Korean nuclear threat, as new evidence is emerging that Pyongyang may be engaging in international drug smuggling to finance its nuclear program and bolster its military. The U.S. Congress last month heard these charges from a North Korean defector and Australia is investigating whether the North Korea sanctioned a ship to carry more than $200 million worth of heroin to drug dealers there.
Australian police broke the case one stormy night in April along the rugged southern coast. Members of a suspected drug running gang, under surveillance for weeks, led police to a deserted beach not far from Melbourne.
The officers watched a North Korean trawler named the Pong Su, pitching in the heavy seas, edge close to shore. A small dinghy put out from the ship but was swamped by the waves. One of its crewmen swam ashore but the other drowned. His body washed ashore along with some packages wrapped tightly in plastic. The suspects waiting on shore grabbed the packages.
Australian Police investigator Ian McCartney explains that police subsequently arrested the suspects and found the packages contained 125 kilograms of high quality heroin from Southeast Asia's Golden Triangle.
"Physical surveillance revealed that the heroin had come off that ship and it came off the ship via a dinghy that was on the ship that transported the heroin onto the beach in Victoria," recalled Mr. McCartney.
A chilling sea chase began that night to capture the Pong Su. For four days police cutters chased the trawler as it tried to escape in the stormy waters. Finally a navy frigate brought in special forces troops that rappelled from helicopters onto the trawler's deck and seized the ship.
Investigator McCartney says all of the Pong Su's 26 crew members were North Korean. One of them has been tentatively identified as a senior diplomat at North Korea's embassy in Beijing.
"In relation to the crew list, one of the persons arrested was nominated as a political secretary and we're conducting inquiries to follow up what that actually means," he said.
The United States says the Pong Su incident is another piece of evidence that the North Korean government is a rogue state involved in international crime.
American and South Korean officials accuse North Korea of trafficking in drugs and counterfeit U.S. dollars. They say Pyongyang often uses officials with diplomatic immunity as couriers and say the trafficking provides Pyongyang with hundreds of millions of dollars a year in hard currency.
North Korea rejects the accusation calling it part of a U.S.-led campaign to smear the government's reputation.
The head of the Korean Studies Center at Australia National University, Ken Wells, notes that the case has yet to come to trial. But he says the operation appears to have been authorized by North Korean government which, after years of economic decline due to international sanctions and internal mismanagement, is increasingly short of cash.
"It has been seized upon by America as a somewhat fortuitous discovery," said Mr. Wells, "because it reinforces some of the claims that the United States has been making and thus enables the United State to exert more pressure on North Korea."
U.S. officials want the international community to crackdown on these activities. They also want foreign governments to stop buying North Korean missile technology, which has been sold to countries that are suspected of trying to develop weapons of mass destruction.
Washington hopes the added pressure will convince Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear program, which has heightened tensions along the Korean Peninsula since October.
Professor Wells says such tactics have not worked in the past. Instead, he says, Pyongyang has shown it is willing to use military threats as part of a negotiating strategy of defiance.
"Some of the objectives of the [North Korean's] negotiation strategy might seem to be irrational, especially in the longer term," said Mr. Wells. "But from the North Korean political point of view and from the point of view of the survival of the present North Korean regime, which is their objective, this is not irrational."
Diplomatic observers say North Korea appears to be straining the few international friendships it has.
Australia is one the few Western governments with diplomatic relations with Pyongyang and it has been trying mediate the confrontation over North Korea's nuclear program. But the Pong Su case has angered the Australian government, which has told North Korea that the incident, if proven true, could seriously affect relations.
Diplomatic observers say if the case of the Pong Su trawler provides proof that North Korea is trafficking in illegal drugs, Pyongyang could lose any sympathy it has left in the international community and could suffer even greater penalties than economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation.