Where Pirates Still Sail

Park Ha Joon promised to be home in a month. The 47-year-old South Korean ship's engineer had made this kind of trip hundreds of times before, so when he said goodbye to his wife and two daughters last September, nobody got too upset. "Be healthy," he said to his wife, "and take care of the kids." Park boarded a 2,600-ton cargo ship called the Tenyu in the southern port of Ulsan and set sail for Indonesia. Over the phone, Park's 11-year-old daughter asked him to bring her some dolls. In Indonesia, Park helped supervise the loading of 3,000 tons of aluminum ingots. The Tenyu then sailed for Inchon, South Korea; the ship's Korean captain reported that it left port around midnight on Sept. 27. But he never gave his routine noon-location report the next day. Park, the captain and the ship's 12 Chinese crew members haven't been seen since.

But the Tenyu has. Three months later, a strange-looking ship sailed into the dusty Chinese port of Zhangjiagang. A patch of clean new paint was slopped over the bow. Bright black letters, SANEI 1, shone out from the otherwise rusted hull of the 14-year-old cargo ship. Suspicious Chinese port officials called the Piracy Reporting Center in Kuala Lumpur. Several days later, a lawyer for the shipowner climbed aboard the decrepit ship disguised as a Chinese border guard. The Chinese crew was gone, replaced by a team of scruffy Indonesians. All the original identifying marks had been painted over with the ship's new name. But the pirates forgot one thing: deep in the ship's greasy hull, the lawyer found the original serial number still carved onto the ship's engine. "I heard about pirates in the region, but I never dreamed my ship would become their target," says Takeshi Masumoto, the ship's Japanese owner, who just last month got his ship back. "I wish to God the ship had been returned with its original crew."

Park and the rest of the Tenyu crew may have met the same horrifying fate as the seven sailors whose bullet-ridden bodies were dragged up last December in fishing nets on the south coast of China. Those dead sailors were caught up in a violent and wildly lucrative new form of piracy that is plaguing the South China Sea. Organized syndicates, with operations reaching from Hong Kong to Indonesia, Singapore, South Korea and China, are stealing entire ships--and murdering the crews. The pirated vessels are called "phantoms," because, except on paper, the ships don't really exist. With new names and temporary registrations--courtesy of ask-no-questions officials in Honduras, Belize and Panama--the phantoms carry stolen cargo around the region. "You know how easy it is to run a phantom ship?" says Clay Wild, an investigator with Western Pacific Marine Ltd. in Hong Kong, who helped crack the Tenyu case. "Everybody in Asia will look the other way for a pack of money."

Just as it did on the Spanish Main 300 years ago, the chance to make a quick buck turns men's hearts to piracy. For the rum shops and cays of Spanish Town and Porto Bello, substitute the seedy southern ports of China, where anything goes, and crooked officials do shady deals far from the reaches of Beijing. "China," says Mak Joon Num, director of research at the Maritime Institute of Malaysia, "has become what the Caribbean islands were for the buccaneers."

Actually, there have always been pirates in the South China Sea. Long ago, they plundered schooners as they traded tea and opium with China, and targeted ships sailing from the Spice Islands. This century, modern navies dampened criminal activity, but recently piracy got a new lease on life. Last year 67 sailors were killed by pirates, all but one in Asia, compared with only 26 in 1996. Pirate attacks in Asia have jumped 40 percent since 1992. New phantom ships, carrying stolen cargoes, are being reported every three weeks.

The get-rich-quick mentality so common in modern China lies behind today's piracy. In some cases, the line between local officials and smugglers has become blurred. In a series of mysterious cases, Chinese port authorities have apprehended ships that were attacked, confiscated the cargo, auctioned it and kept the proceeds. The pirates were then sent home. Businessmen who control the pirates know the risks and the rewards. "These Asian kingpins flying around the world with mobile phones, they need markets for their cargoes," says a lawyer connected to the Tenyu case. "For questionable cargo that has dubious heritage, the market is in China, where people are just not constrained by the law."

Indeed. In some Chinese ports, the syndicate bosses need only to buy off a few harbor officials. "These guys get a big dinner and a handful of cash, and they don't ask why the documents don't look right," says Wild, who has investigated many lost-cargo cases in China's ports. The pirate syndicates not only have machine guns and mobile phones but state-of-the-art communications, Global Positioning Systems and transmitters to keep ahead of law- enforcement vessels. A crew member who was detained in China told the Piracy Reporting Center that one gang had a hotel room full of high-tech communications equipment.

In some cases, local officials may be involved in a more organized way. The Petro Ranger, a Singapore-owned tanker, was attacked in April last year, while sailing from Ho Chi Minh City to Singapore with a cargo of oil and kerosene. Twelve pirates wearing balaclava hoods came alongside in a speedboat and climbed aboard. They dragged the terrified Australian captain and crew to the bridge, strapped the captain to a chair and held machetes to his groin and throat, threatening to kill him if he didn't cooperate. The heist was organized with military precision; by cell phone, the pirates called nearby Hainan island, a southern Chinese territory known for corruption scams and smuggling. Four days later, a lighter pulled up and started to unload its $1.5 million cargo. Chinese Border Defense officials then showed up. They escorted the ship into port and held the pirates--and crew--for 30 days of interrogations. Kenneth Blyth, the captain, is convinced the Chinese were part of the operation, possibly staging the attack in order to smuggle the ship's cargo into China. "This was a case of smuggling cargo, not piracy," says Blyth, who was so rattled that he has given up sailing. Blyth believes he has proof of collusion, and says the pirates wanted him dead. The pirates reportedly knew the names and address of Blyth's family in Australia. "I was supposed to be disposed of," he says. "In the fishermen's nets--that's where I was supposed to be." Blyth says he can prove misconduct by the Chinese authorities and the ship's owner.

Petroships, the respected Singapore company that owns the Petro Ranger, denies any involvement. "What on earth would we have to gain?" says executive director Tan Cheng Meng, in his bustling office near Singapore's port. But like Blyth, Petroships officials suspect that the Chinese--who never prosecuted the case--were involved. "What the Chinese did was totally irresponsible and deplorable," says Tan. "They let the pirates go despite overwhelming evidence. They got their money and want to wash their hands of the whole mess." China says it had no proof of piracy.

That wasn't the first time Chinese authorities had confiscated cargo and sent the pirates home. In October 1997, pirates in speedboats, dressed in battle fatigues, boarded the Vosa Carrier just south of Hong Kong, then brought the ship to the tiny Chinese port of Huilai. According to the London-based International Maritime Bureau, local authorities allegedly forced the crew to sign confessions of smuggling before they were released. The police then used the confessions to confiscate the $2.5 million cargo. A month later uniformed officials, possibly from Guangdong province, boarded the Asian Friendship and forced the ship to sail to Shanwei, another small southern port. They released it shortly afterward. In 1995, pirates attacked the Anna Sierra, set its crew adrift on rafts, then sailed the freighter to Beihai, not far from the Vietnamese border. Local authorities confiscated the ship's sugar cargo, then demanded $400,000 in port fees for the ship's return. The owner refused to pay. Today, on a beach strewn with bits of rusted hull, Chinese workers are breaking the ship apart.

But it is the Tenyu incident that really suggests an international syndicate is at work. According to lawyers, shortly after border-patrol officers detained the ship in Zhangjiagang, a port near Shanghai, two crew members, including the chief mate, disappeared. Piracy investigators say both sailors had also worked on the Anna Sierra, the pirated ship that is being picked apart in Beihai. The disappearance of the crew members has raised suspicions that the syndicate didn't want them interrogated. "The masterminds had friends with influence in the port if they were able to spirit two people off the ship," says a lawyer on the case.

Meanwhile, several possible members of the gang have been arrested. Four South Koreans are facing trial in their home country for involvement in the Tenyu case. According to a Korean TV documentary, a former ship's captain reportedly recruited--through a Singaporean company--the Indonesians who replaced the original crew. The captain was arrested in Singapore and extradited to South Korea, where he was charged with selling the cargo of aluminum ingots to a Chinese company for $3 million. Korean authorities think another Singaporean masterminded the operation. The Korean prosecutor is frustrated by slow investigations in Singapore, China, Indonesia and Hong Kong. "Things are not going well," says prosecutor Kwak Gyu Hong.

Another Korean, Kim Tae Kuk, 44, now serving a sentence in Hong Kong for smuggling aliens, might also be part of the gang. He says he was only trying to help his relatives. Kim is the former head of the Tenyu owner's office in the Chinese port of Dalian and was once captain of the Tenyu himself. Korean prosecutors, who suspect he is involved in the Tenyu's heist, want to extradite Kim. Then there is Chew Cheng Kiat, a Singaporean also known as Mr. Wong, who is facing trial in Batam, an Indonesian island near Singapore. Indonesian intelligence officers allege he ran a hijacking syndicate that worked the waters between Indonesia and Singapore. They claim Wong has admitted involvement in the attack on the Petro Ranger and other ships. When Indonesian authorities boarded Wong's tanker in November, they found 15 weapons, 14 masks, three knives, immigration and ship's stamps, false ships' documents and paint. Wong argues that he was charged without a proper arrest order.

The Chinese authorities, for their part, deny involvement in piracy. Beijing has launched a major crackdown on corruption to wipe out the trade. While investigating another case, China solved the riddle of the Cheung Son. The Hong Kong-owned ship, carrying a $65,000 cargo of furnace slag, went missing last November off the coast of southern China. Fishermen from the port of Shantou, a smugglers' haven, discovered the bodies of seven of the Cheung Son's 23 crew members in their nets. The sailors were bound and gagged and weighted with steel bars. According to one autopsy report, the cause of death was drowning: the sailor was still alive when he was thrown overboard. Others were riddled with machine-gun bullets.

How can shipowners--and crews--handle the new violence? Shipping organizations advise that when in dangerous waters, masters flood the ship with light, move full speed ahead and zigzag if a suspicious vessel approaches. Some sailors want ships to be armed, but Jan Katkjaer, director of Skuld P & I Club, a liability insurer for shipowners, thinks that might escalate the violence: "We don't believe that seafarers should be combat soldiers."

Better armed than dead, perhaps. As the investigation of the Tenyu drags on, Park's wife, Kim Mae Ja, struggles on. The shipowner has stopped paying her husband's salary, and the insurers, with no proof of death, haven't paid much. The Chinese, meanwhile, haven't decided what to do with the Indonesian crew, who may or may not be pirates. The shipping world now assumes that the original crew members were murdered. Says Kim of her missing husband, "I want to believe he is alive, but my faith is waning."

There may be many more grieving widows to come. In March, a cargo ship loaded with soda ash was attacked near Thailand; the pirates forced the crew onto rubber rafts. After six days of starving in the open seas, the sailors were saved by Thai fishermen. Their ship has just been spotted in the small Chinese port of Fangcheng, near Vietnam's border. Those who took it won't be found drinking rum and dancing the hornpipe. But don't be fooled: they're as bloodthirsty as Blackbeard or Captain Kidd.