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Japan Releases Controversial N. Korean Ferry - 2003-08-26

A North Korean cargo-passenger ferry is on its way back home after a tension-filled, two-day call on the Japanese port of Niigata.

The ferry, North Korea's only direct passenger link to Japan, left for its home port of Wonsan Tuesday evening, more than eight hours behind schedule. Aboard are about 200 passengers and tons of food, appliances and used automobiles.

During an unprecedented eight-hour inspection Monday by an army of Japanese officials, five safety violations were found. Japan's Transportation Ministry would not allow the vessel to depart until a faulty oil-water separator was repaired and promises were made to bring other equipment up to international safety standards.

Japanese officials have said the vessel, the Mongyongbong 92, has engaged in smuggling and espionage operations during previous port calls to Japan. Tuesday's action comes as Japan and 10 other nations are preparing to practice interdicting on the high seas vessels suspected of smuggling weapons or contraband, exercises clearly aimed at North Korea.

Japan's strict enforcement of safety regulations also comes as six nations, including Japan and North Korea are gathering in Beijing for talks on North Korea's nuclear weapons program.

The Mongyongbong 92 canceled a port call to Niigata in June after officials here warned they would carry out strict security and safety inspections. That prompted the North Koreans to upgrade equipment on the ship, including a high-speed lifeboat and sprinklers.

Transportation Minister Chikage Ogi told reporters Tuesday that the ship better be in tip-top shape next time it comes to Japan.

Ms. Ogi said the ship is expected to visit again on September 4, but she will not allow it to dock unless all improvements have been completed.

As the North Korean ferry was waiting for permission to leave Japan, there was another incident Tuesday involving a North Korean ship.

South Korea says warning shots were fired by its Navy Tuesday at a North Korean naval patrol boat. The incident took place in the Yellow Sea, off the west coast of the divided peninsula in disputed waters.

Although such incidents occur from time to time, there was special concern in Seoul because of the six-party talks about to start in Beijing. In the past, North Korea has taken advantage of relatively minor incidents to delay or walk out of international meetings.

Tuesday's incident was the first time this year a South Korean ship has fired warning shots to repel a navy vessel. South Korean military officials said the North Korean vessel retreated across the border after only three minutes.