Australian authorities to destroy North Korean drug smuggling ship

Authorities will destroy a North Korean freighter used to smuggle millions of dollars worth of heroin into Australia, police said Monday, despite a jury clearing the ship's captain and three officers of involvement in an international drug ring.

Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Keelty said the Tuvalu-registered freighter, Pong Su, which was seized by the Australian navy in 2003, would be broken up.

The case raised prospects of finding evidence to back longstanding allegations that North Korean officials are involved in drug trafficking, but Keelty said it was difficult to prove that the North Korean government was involved in the smuggling. North Korea denies the allegations.

Prosecutors say the vessel was carrying more than 125 kilograms (275 pounds) of heroin when it anchored off the southwest Victoria town of Lorne on April 16, 2003. The drug haul was carried ashore by dinghy and four men have pleaded guilty to helping smuggle a commercial quantity of heroin into Australia.

But a jury at the Victoria state Supreme Court in Melbourne on Sunday cleared the ship's captain, chief mate, chief engineer and political secretary of being involved. The men have spent some three years in custody, and the Pong Su is still impounded in Sydney.

"It still is a vessel that was used for the importation of heroin into Australia, that's been proved before the courts, and it will be destroyed just like any other vessel in that situation," said Keelty. "What normally would happen in a case like this is where a vessel is used for an importation of this kind, the vessel is disposed of under the Customs Act and that's what we intend to pursue in this case."

Keelty said Monday it was "hard to establish" whether the North Korean government was involved, given the fact that the captain and three officers had been cleared, reports the AP.

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