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Sophisticated Missile Reported Found on North Korean Ship - 2002-06-26

Unconfirmed media reports say Japan has found a sophisticated weapon on a suspected North Korean ship that sank in Chinese waters last year. The reports, if true, could force changes in Japan's military.

Several major Japanese news organizations report that the unidentified ship was much more heavily armed than previously thought. The ship went down in the East China Sea last December after a shootout with the Japanese coast guard.

The widely circulated Yomiuri newspaper and the Nihon Keizai newspaper have reported government divers inspected the ship Tuesday. They reportedly found an Igla-2 anti-aircraft missile developed by the former Soviet Union. The reports quote unnamed sources in the Japanese government and coast guard.

However, at a press conference Wednesday, a government spokesman said the reports are unconfirmed and based on speculation. The Igla-2 missile, which is shoulder-launched, has a range of 3,800 meters and is guided by infrared rays.

. "This means that Japanese helicopters and ships such as destroyers and patrol boats have to be very vigilant and prepare themselves with strong arms to counter these weapons," said Masashi Nishihara, a professor at the Defense Academy of Japan. "This discovery suggests that Japan has to strengthen its own defense posture."

Unnamed government sources have also said the divers spotted portable anti-tank grenade launchers and machine guns in the wreckage.

Two submersible salvage crafts arrived Wednesday at the site where Japanese crews will try to raise the sunken vessel. The operation should take a month, but a coast guard spokesman said bad weather is causing some problems.

Japan suspects the vessel belongs to North Korea and was on a spying or drug-trafficking mission when the coast guard spotted it. North Korea accuses Japan of mounting a smear campaign over the ship and denies any links to it.

Mr. Nishihara of the Defense Academy said the reported discovery of weapons will fan anti-North Korean sentiment in Japan. Tokyo has never established diplomatic ties with the hard-line communist state.

"I think this is going to delay normalization negotiations again. They have been delayed over and over again for so many years. Once in awhile they resume, but when this kind of thing happens, both sides get mad at each other and they the talks stop," Mr. Nishihara said.

The suspicious ship is getting heavy news coverage in Japan and many people said they are deeply concerned about it.