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N. Korean Boat Makes Japanese Town Tense

August 24, 2003

NIIGATA, Japan (AP) _ Police and coast guard forces were on alert in northern Japan on Sunday ahead of the arrival of a North Korean ferry that authorities allege has been used for espionage and the smuggling of missile parts and drugs.

The Mangyongbong-92 is scheduled to arrive Monday morning for a two-day visit. Authorities are concerned about possible clashes between North Korean residents welcoming the passenger ferry and extreme right-wing groups and other protesters who oppose the stop.

The site was mostly calm Sunday, with a lone protester in a wheelchair calling for the ship’s visit to be rebuffed. The Japan Coast Guard had beefed up its local flotilla from six to 10 patrol vessels to ward off demonstrators at sea, spokesman Tadahiko Uchimura said.

``If there’s trouble, we have to be ready,″ he said.

The 416-foot Mangyongbong, complete with a dining room bedecked with communist murals, last docked in Niigata on Jan. 15. But subsequent trips were scrapped after Japan vowed to search it thoroughly and angry protesters mobbed the pier.

The white-hulled ship was long a focus of suspicion during its regular visits to the northern Japanese port of Niigata, an industrial port city about 160 miles northwest of Tokyo. But tensions have peaked amid new allegations the boat is a conduit for communist espionage.

The visit also tests already icy relations between Japan and North Korea, before top delegates from the two countries square off in upcoming six-nation talks in Beijing aimed at defusing an international standoff over Pyongyang’s suspected nuclear weapons programs. Some media reports suggested North Korea was sending the ship now to dispel smuggling allegations ahead of the talks.

``I think North Korea deliberately chose this particular timing,″ said Yoriaki Aoyama, an official at the regional transport bureau in Niigata. ``We have to be rather careful in handling the ship.″

Transportation Minister Chikage Ogi has said that the boat’s passenger service could be suspended if inspections turn up any safety, customs, immigration or quarantine violations.

Ogi said Friday that scrutiny will focus on whether the ship has a device known as an AIS, or Automatic Identification System, which is required for high seas passenger ferries under international law. It automatically transmits the ship’s location, direction, speed and other navigation data.

If the AIS is missing, Japanese authorities can detain the ship until the equipment is installed or turn it back without allowing passengers to board, the Yomiuri Shimbun, a leading daily, reported. The ferry is expected to leave for its home port of Wonsan, North Korea, early Tuesday.

On Sunday, the Coast Guard was preparing about 240 personnel for round-the-clock patrols and on-board inspections, spokesman Yoshiaki Shibuya said. Another 1,500 police were mobilized to maintain order, police spokesman Masakazu Yamaguchi added.

The ferry was to pick up about 200 passengers _ mostly elderly Koreans living in Japan and hoping to visit relatives in North Korea, or students from schools in Japan that cater to ethnic Koreans and are run by backers of the North’s communist regime.

The ferry came under suspicion earlier this year, when two alleged North Korean defectors testified before the U.S. Congress that the ship ferried from Japan up to 80 percent of the parts used in Pyongyang’s missile program. Tokyo says the boat traditionally ships back the majority of millions of dollars in cash sent home every year by North Koreans living in Japan.

North Korea denounces the get-tough inspections as harassment and denies that the boat has ever been a gun-and-drug runner.

But to the United States, Japan and South Korea, targeting the Mangyongbong is seen as one way of stemming the flow of weapons technology and money they say supports the regime.

Update hourly