Nearly all drug smuggling crew were executed in North Korea, police fear
The Australian Federal Police fear nearly all of the crew from the North Korean drug ship Pong Su were executed after their deportation from Australia in 2004.
The federal police's lead investigator in the Pong Su heroin trafficking case, Damien "Des" Appleby, expressed his concern about the crews' fate in the tenth and final episode of The Age and Sydney Morning Herald's podcast series, The Last Voyage of the Pong Su.
"We inquired what would happen to them and the people that would know most about what would happen to them pretty much informed me that they would have been executed. So we think that's what happened to them," Detective Superintendent Appleby said.
READ MORE:Incredible story behind the last voyage of the Pong Su
Detective Appleby, who is the AFP's senior liaison officer in Hong Kong, stressed that though it was his informed belief that as many as 26 of the 30 crew were executed, it was not a confirmed fact.
"We can't make inquiries and they won't tell us, but we assume that they were executed," he said.
North Korea had in 2004 - and still does today - a policy of executing its citizens for a wide array of real or perceived crimes. But because of the closed nature of North Korean society, it is impossible to get accurate statistics of how many people are executed each year.
Though the bulk of the Pong Su's crew did not face trial over the April 2003 operation to land 150 kilograms of heroin near Lorne on Victoria's Great Ocean Road, they could have faced adverse consequences back in North Korea for being involved in drug trafficking or using resources of the state to commit serious crimes.
Prominent North Korean defector, former top diplomat Thae Yong-ho, told The Last Voyage of the Pong Su that he is certain the Pong Su crew would have faced "severe punishment".
Mr Thae said while the seizure of more than $100 million worth of heroin by Australian police would have angered North Korean officials, the regime of the country's then leader, Kim Jong-Il would have been even more upset about damage to North Korea's reputation on the world stage following the Pong Su's capture.
"They have to erase or delete everything which could give a clue to Australian government to prove that they are.... they were engaged in drug smuggling, but they failed to do it," he said.
Mr Thae was North Korea's deputy ambassador to the United Kingdom at the time of his 2016 defection to the west.
Despite the federal police's fears for most of the Pong Su's crew, the four most senior men from the ship who did face trial in Australia, master Song Man Sun, political secretary Choi Dong Song and two engineers were seen alive and well in North Korea by their Australian defence lawyer Jack Dalziel, in 2006.
Mr Dalziel was invited to North Korea for a visit months after the four men were found not guilty of aiding the massive heroin importation by a Melbourne jury. He said he had a lunch with the four men from the Pong Su.
Mr Dalziel said he was surprised and saddened to learn of the federal police's belief that the rest of the crew were most likely killed upon their return to North Korea in 2004.
The former coordinator of the United Nations Security Council panel of experts on North Korea, Hugh Griffiths, declined to comment on the fate of the Pong Su's crew.
Mr Griffiths had access to some of the world's best intelligence on North Korea until he finished his UN role in late 2018.
He told The Last Voyage of the Pong Su he was unable to comment on cases that had come before his panel.
However, he urged listeners to consider the 2017 public murder of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, at a Malaysian airport as an indication of what the regime was capable of.
"You can look at the VX nerve gas attack in Kuala Lumpur airport, which shows the extent to which certain parties in North Korea are willing to go, and what can be authorised," Mr Griffiths said.
North Korean agents orchestrated the attack on Kim Jong-nam by getting an Indonesian woman and a Vietnamese woman to place handkerchiefs with the deadly nerve agent on them over his face.
Both women were charged with murder by Malaysian police, but these charges were later dropped.
The women claimed they were duped by North Korean agents who convinced them the handkerchief attack was nothing more than a prank for a television show.