SNIFFING OUT SMUGGLERSThe 3:05 p.m. flight from Shenyang, China, has just landed at Incheon International Airport, and the narcotics team is on high alert. In the baggage claim area, Momo, a 5-year-old golden retriever, sniffs among the passengers and their bags alongside a conveyer belt.
A tall, dark-skinned, brawny man holds Momo by a leash and instructs the narcotics detecting dog to examine the large bags. "Momo, sit. Momo, here."
Momo's handler is Jung Dong-chae, 36, a detective with the Narcotics Investigation Section at Incheon Airport Customs and the longest serving member of the dog handling team.
Passengers curiously look at the pair and some women start patting the dog. "Between 3 and 4 p.m. is the busiest time of my day," Mr. Jung says as he points to some suitcases for Momo to check.
"This is when scores of planes from countries with a smuggling history arrive. When that happens, we really have to get cracking with the search." By "we," he is referring to his canine partner that he teams up with each day to zero in on illicit drugs.
One such mid-afternoon search: "A suspicious-looking Nigerian woman came in from Hong Kong with no baggage with her, which we thought was quite strange. So we followed her. Sure enough, her baggage came on the next plane and when we did a search, we uncovered 30 kilograms of marijuana, worth about 300 million won ($240,000)."
"It's the greatest feeling in the world to bust drug smugglers," Mr. Jung says. "It feels like flying."
Narcotics such as cocaine, opium, hashish, cannabis, heroin and ecstasy are smuggled into Korea through every means imaginable -- bars of soap, cassette players, books, and even in the heels of shoes. "Incheon is a transit route for smugglers; many times, the final destination ends up being Japan," says Kang Ho, Chief of the Narcotics Investigation Section at the Airport Customs.
Since 1998, the team of 15 dogs has detected an average of 4.5 incidents of narcotics smuggling each year. So far in 2002, though, they've sniffed out 14. Says Mr. Kang: "We have had an impressive record of findings by our detector dogs, largely because of the accumulated know-how of our teams and the fact that marijuana has a pungent smell that makes it very detectable."
"The amount of drugs smuggled into a country has a strong correlation with GNP," Mr. Jung adds as he scans the list of arriving flights on the airport's big screen. "As our GNP increases, so will the demand for narcotics."
This in turn means that the Narcotics Investigation Section is becoming busier. After Sept. 11, 2001, and the World Cup, the use of dogs to search for illegal drugs intensified, as have their findings. Unfortunately, 15 detector dogs cannot cover the slew of planes that arrive at Incheon every day, hence the handlers and the dogs focus mainly on departure points with a history of smuggling -- the United States, China and Southeast Asia. Of those arrested for smuggling, 30 percent are foreigners.
Detector dogs were introduced at airports back in 1987, in preparation for the Seoul Olympics. "At first dogs were used to fight acts of terrorism, to detect explosives, but later on, they became used for narcotics," Mr. Kang says.
About 16 kilometers away from the airport is the Canine Training Center, where 73 dogs, both narcotics detectors and those still in training, make their home.
In front of the kennel building is a spacious field with hurdles and other equipment used for training the dogs. When Mr. Jung goes toward the outdoor kennels, where around 10 dogs are housed behind barbed-wire fences, the dogs jump up and down, greeting him elatedly. Most of these sturdy dogs are German shepherds or golden retrievers, along with a few cocker spaniels.
The dogs are separated from their mothers at three months old so they can begin special physical training. After they reach a year old, the dogs undergo an intensive, 16-week training program to learn how to detect narcotics in freight cargo, baggage and on people. Those that pass the intensive tests are assigned a handler, a customs official who will pair with the dog and search for the unwelcome dope. Those that don't pass are kept on to breed future canine detectives.
Dogs, which have extremely sensitive noses, are trained to sit next to a bag or a person if they sense any kind of narcotics. They're not allowed to bark or bite people. "About one out of 10 times, the dogs are accurate when they smell something fishy," Mr. Jung says.
Mr. Jung says his job requires great stamina. Growing up in Gyeongsang province, he was never in robust health, so started learning taekwondo in the fifth grade to become strong. During his compulsory military service, he was on a police SWAT team.
Mr. Jung started handling dogs while working on that SWAT team in 1986, when he was put in charge of the dog unit. "I didn't volunteer, but my whole career has been involved with dogs since then," Mr. Jung says.
When he left the army in 1988, he operated a taekwondo gym in Daegu for about seven months. A friend recommended that he join the National Intelligence Agency or join the SWAT team at the police headquarters, but he refused. "I felt I couldn't enjoy a normal family life if I entered any of those agencies," he says.
Before going to Gimpo International Airport in 1999, Mr. Jung spent nine years at the customs offices at Gimhae Airport in Busan. During his early career, he was in charge of explosive-detecting dogs, but since switching to Gimpo, and then last year to Incheon, he has trained and handled the dogs that look for narcotics smuggling.
The biggest difficulty of the job, Mr. Jung says, is that passengers are impatient when the dogs go sniffing in their luggage. Incidents have occurred where passengers kicked the dogs and shouted at the handlers. "Sometimes the dogs drip saliva during their search and passengers yell at us and demand that we lick the saliva off," he says, exasperated. "It's despicable. We work hard to prevent narcotics from entering the country and the least they could do is be cooperative."
About a month ago, Mr. Jung parted with his canine partner of seven years, Sonny, after the latter became too old to carry out the job. "I cried and drank for three days because of the separation," Mr. Jung recalls. Although for the moment Sonny is housed at the Canine Center for Mr. Jung to visit, it will most likely be sent away to the Animal Association.
For now, though, Mr. Jung has just gotten used to his new partner, Nester, who joined the rounds about a month ago. "I will probably end my life working with dogs, but I have no regrets about it," Mr. Jung says.
by Choi Jie-ho