North Korean refugee Kim Sang-man (51) is a former senior naval officer who smuggled drugs to China and South Korea using his Navy ship, taking advantage of the fact that such boats are never searched. He had his own reasons. Feeding hungry North Korean soldiers was one, and he also says he hoped the proceeds would fund a coup d'etat, though how truthful these claims are must be in doubt.
He likes to wear fatigues. "I made them from material given me by friends in the mother country," he says. "It's only for high-ranking party officials." He boasts of his close relationship with the North Korean Army." After the coup d'etat in North Korea, I am thinking of becoming defense minister," he says. His paperwork says he is a South Korean citizen, but he likes to deny it. "How can you change your mother country? A solider can't do that."
◆ May 28, 2007, Tenjin, China: Kim greets us at the airport. He seems in a hurry, saying the Chinese are after him. Another tall tale? When he is about to turn onto a highway ramp, two strange cars are right behind us. He pulls the car over in the middle of the highway and comes to a screeching halt. The cars behind us both stop as well. "If you want to tail someone, you have to do it right. The Chinese are clumsy." We start to believe him.
On the border, the tail follows Kim to restaurants and hotels without fear of Chinese public security or North Korean border guards. "Never mind. They're protecting us." We begin to get a sense of what it takes to live the life of a blacklisted man.
He easily gets angry. "We're selling our daughters because the mother country's people go hungry, and they become sex slaves for Chinese men." He is always badmouthing China. We become curious. Why would they be shadowing a North Korean refugee with a big mouth and a dubious regard for the truth? The answer comes a few days later.
◆ June 17, 2007, 5 p.m., a Chinese Border Town: Kim says he met a North Korean Navy boat. "You won't believe this. A senior of mine in the Navy called me, asking me to buy them some fuel as they'd run out." The tall tales were getting tiresome. We had planned to go to a restaurant for a late dinner, and when we got into the car, there was an overpowering smell of gas. A shiver ran down our spines.
◆ June 17, 2007, 10 p.m.: We get to the border in his car. Kim talks on the phone, checking the position of the boat. It approaches as we arrive at the agreed point. "Are they really soldiers?" "I'll show you proof." He runs to the river and is back in 10 minutes. We hear the noise of the boat engine receding into the distance. Kim hides a bag of white stuff under the driver's seat. "It's the ice" -- top quality North Korean-made methamphetamine. "A little over US$11,000, a bargain." Then he holds up the ammunition belt of a North Korean officer. "I told you I'd show you proof."
◆ June 29, 2007, 5 p.m.: Kim visits us to take back the ammunition belt. "There will be an equipment check. I have to return it to them." Getting into his car, he took out a battery of cell phones. "Surveillance is getting tighter these days." The gunboat returns, painted khaki but obviously old. There is a slogan in white that is difficult to make out. Kim jumps out with the ammunition belt and is back within moments. What did he say to them? "I told them the people will only be happy with the collapse of Kim Jong-il."
◆ July 14, 2007, 9 a.m.: Kim drops by, saying his Navy senior wanted to meet him. "He made a huge fuss." We go downtown to buy a motorcycle. Kim is in a tizzy as we look around the stores. "They're asking too much." But, solely dependent on the North Korean Navy for his business, grumble is all he can do. He cannot reject their requests. While he buys the motorcycle, his tail catches up with him. We are in for a breathless car chase along the winding streets at over 90 miles an hour. Kim checks his watch. "I'm late for the meeting." We were more nervous that he was.
◆ July 14, 2007, 11 a.m.: No tail. Kim takes out the US$11,000, carrying the money while we push the motorbike. In the bag on the shoulder, there is a hidden camera. About a dozen men with crew cuts are standing on the old patrol boat, soldiers in white undershirts and fatigue pants. Two of them jump down to tether the boat. They take the money without a word. The senior officer approaches. Kim sounds uncomfortable. "Sorry, I don't know how to drive it." "You really should take care of everything, little brother," he says, inspecting the bike. Soldiers load the motorbike, and the boat is gone within 15 minutes.
We did not hear from Kim after that, and after a month we learned that he was being followed as part of an investigation for possession of drugs. But that was not the end of our encounters with drug smuggling.
By Park Jong-in, Lee Hark-joon