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Australia Warns N. Korea About Suspected Role in Drug Trafficking - 2003-05-02

Australia is warning North Korea over its suspected role in drug trafficking and has summoned the Stalinist state's ambassador to an urgent meeting in Canberra.

Australia's Foreign Minister Alexander Downer says he suspects the North Korean government is trafficking drugs to raise money.

Last month Australian authorities seized a North Korean freighter suspected of carrying more than US $50 million worth of heroin to Australia.

The vessel, the Pong Su, was seized by SAS commandoes after a four-day chase on the high seas off Australia's east coast. The crew of 26 North Koreans and others from Malaysia, Singapore and China, allegedly dropped the drugs on shore a week before the seizure. The crew, which is now in custody, has been charged with aiding and abetting drug smuggling.

The seizure set off a diplomatic skirmish, with Foreign Minister Downer calling the North Korean ambassador Chon Jae Hong to an urgent meeting.

Mr. Downer says the ship, Pong Su, is owned by North Korea's ruling Korean Workers' Party and a party official was on board. He says that while the Australians cannot prove that Pyongyang was behind the drug operation, he is concerned.

"If there was proof that another government or the political party, which is the governing party of another country, is involved in drug trafficking, that would be a matter of complete outrage… What we're doing is… laying down some markers to North Korea today that we are very concerned… bearing in mind that North Korea is a totalitarian state and there has been an official of the Korean Workers' Party found on board the ship," he said.

Mr. Downer says Australian intelligence agencies informed the government that the secretive North Korean regime was selling drugs to raise money.