A team of four Chinese nationals was caught smuggling tobacco leaves from China in punching bags and other household goods shipped to South Korea, officials said on Wednesday.
The Incheon Main Customs uncovered some 1.3 metric tons (1,300 kilograms) of tobacco leaves at the Incheon International Airport, which can be used to manufacture up to an estimated 13 million packs of cigarettes.
Customs authorities slapped each of the four smugglers, including a 30-year-old woman in charge of the operation, with a 10 million won ($9,095) fine. Customs can take direct administrative action for illegal imports on goods valued less than 50 million won.
From October to November last year, the syndicate reported to Customs that the products, including punching bags, kettles, and air filters, were all for household purposes. Crushed tobacco leaves were found inside each product.
The tobacco leaves alone cost 10 million won, but is estimated to be worth 500 million won when made into packs of cigarettes.
The investigation found out that aside from the seized packages, another 414 kilograms of tobacco leaves had already been exported to Australia directly after reaching Korea.
As trade relations between China and Australia have soured, Australian customs authorities have stepped up their inspection of goods directly exported from China.
Smugglers have tried to minimize suspicion by rerouting shipments of the Chinese products via South Korea to Australia.
The team of Chinese nationals, who live in South Korea, were found to have smuggled tobacco at least 103 times before they were caught. They had used names, addresses, and contact information of 13 different acquaintances in Korea.
An official at the Korea Customs Service said they will closely monitor and crack down on illegal trade deals that undermine the credibility of South Korea. They also warned residents to exercise caution at all times especially when contacted by acquaintances who request to borrow names and addresses for delivery purposes.
By Kim Hae-yeon (email@example.com