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Japan Set to Salvage Suspected Spy Ship - 2002-06-21

Japan says it soon will begin salvaging an unidentified ship that sank in the East China Sea last December following a shootout with the Japanese coast guard. Friday's announcement comes just days after China consented to the salvage operation.

Japan's Cabinet on Friday approved funds to salvage the mystery ship in China's economic zone. Press reports estimate that the mission could cost nearly $50 million.

Japanese government spokesman Yasuo Fukuda said a full investigation is needed to determine who owned the ship. Mr. Fukuda said the government will examine the ship in detail once it is salvaged, to protect people's safety.

However, Finance Minister Masajuro Shiokawa criticizes what he calls an open checkbook for the operation. He said the fee the salvage company is charging should not be blindly accepted.

The ship went down southeast of Shanghai in December. The Japanese coast guard spotted it in Japan's waters, and tried to stop it. The ship fired on the Japanese and fled.

Japanese authorities think an estimated 15 passengers and crew died when the ship sank. Three Japanese coast guard members were wounded in the shootout.

Four bodies have been recovered from the ship. Japanese officials say items and clothing found on the bodies indicate the ship came from North Korea. Japan contends the boat was either spying or engaged in drug running. North Korea called the sinking an act of piracy, but denies any link to the vessel.

In return for Chinese approval to conduct the salvage operation in China's waters, Japanese officials say Tokyo agreed to two Chinese requests. Japan will provide Beijing with the results of the investigation and will discuss compensating Chinese fishermen claiming their work has been hindered by Japanese patrol vessels in the area since the incident.

Japanese press reports say a support ship for an un-manned submersible vessel to clear the area around the sunken ship will depart Saturday. Another support ship for the submersible craft is to leave a port on Monday.