Phantom ship's ex-captain in jail

THE former captain of a 'phantom' ship who recruited its crew - now feared murdered by pirates - is behind bars in a Hong Kong jail for smuggling aliens.

South Korean Kim Tae-kuk, 45, has been questioned by Interpol officers about the Tenyu, which disappeared with its 15-member crew in the pirate-ridden Straits of Malacca five months ago but was found in China repainted and renamed.

The South Korean Government is disturbed by the loss of the ship's $15 million cargo of aluminium ingots as well as the disappearance of two of its citizens, captain Sin Yong-ju, 51, and chief engineer Pak Ha-jun, 44.

Kim captained the Tenyu from 1988 to 1993 before moving to Dalian in northern China to set up a shipping consultancy called Marine International, according to sources.

He recruited the crew from northern China and Hong Kong, according to the International Maritime Bureau and the ship's owners, Tokyo-based Tenyu Shipping.

Kim was caught last June smuggling two mainlanders through Hong Kong airport to work illegally in Japan, where triad and yakuza gangs use illegal immigrants in red-light, vice and sweatshop labour rackets.

He is now serving a 21-month sentence in Hong Kong.

Despite suspicions a high-powered international piracy syndicate with public security links - spanning China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, the Philippines and Burma - might be involved in the hijacking, only superficial investigations appear to have been carried out in the SAR.

A superintendent from the Hong Kong police Interpol liaison bureau interviewed Kim at Tung Tau Prison in Stanley.

There has been little or no co-ordination between various SAR authorities. The immigration officer who arrested Kim was surprised to learn from the Sunday Morning Post of his connection with the missing ship.

The SAR police report has been handed to the International Maritime Bureau, which was also not aware that Kim once captained the missing vessel.

A bureau spokesman said SAR police had told it there was no evidence Kim was involved in the Tenyu incident.

Radio contact with the Tenyu and its mostly Chinese crew was lost on September 27 - the day it left Kuala Tanjong, Indonesia, bound for the South Korean port of Inchon.

After it had been missing for three months, a ship with the name of a vessel usually only trading in Japan, Sanei 1, turned up at Zhangjiagang port in Jiangsu.

The Tenyu's name had been changed, its Chinese and Korean crew had disappeared and had been replaced by Indonesians. Its Panamanian flag had been swapped for a Honduran standard.

A spokesman for Tenyu Shipping said the pirates had failed to erase one crucial detail - the engine serial number on the Sanei 1 was identical to the Tenyu's.