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North Korea Suspends Major Trade Link With Japan

As anti-North Korean feeling rises in Japan, Pyongyang has suspended a major trade link with its neighbor. North Korea blames a tough new Japanese policy for the canceled ferry service, and says the policy could have "catastrophic consequences."

The passenger-cargo ship Man Gyong Bong 92 had been scheduled to dock at the Japanese port of Niigata on Monday. But because of a new Japanese policy to subject all North Korean vessels to tough inspections, Pyongyang canceled the trip abruptly.

The ship is a major trade link for the impoverished nation, and is the only direct passenger link to Japan. But, according to North Korean defectors and Japanese security officials, the vessel often engages in illicit trade - smuggling back to Pyongyang billions of dollars and the technology to build weapons of mass destruction.

Those reports, as well as rising public anger over the North's kidnapping of several Japanese in the 1970's and 1980's, prompted Tokyo to require tough new inspections for North Korean ships. Hundreds of customs, shipping and immigration inspectors had been prepared to probe every bit of the Man Gyong Bong.

A North Korean residents' group in Japan says the threat of inspections has created a "savage atmosphere." The group also denies the smuggling allegations.

Pyongyang's official news agency says the inspections are "a vicious plot to impair the prestige" of North Korea, which could lead to "catastrophic consequences."

The top Japanese government spokesman, Yasuo Fukuda, on Monday denied that anything was done to bar the ship's arrival. Mr. Fukuda acknowledged that Japanese public sentiment might have made North Korea hesitant to dispatch the vessel. But he said if there are no safety, customs or immigrations problems with the vessel or its cargo and passengers, then Pyongyang has nothing to worry about.

About 800 protesters had gathered at the Niigata port to wait for the ferry's arrival. Relatives of Japanese kidnapped by North Korea were among the protesters. Tamotsu Chimura, the father of one of the abductees, said no North Korean vessels should be allowed to come to Japan. He said he hopes the Japanese government will take a tough stance.

Niigata Governor Ikuo Hirayama said he is relieved the ferry postponed its visit because anger is running high in his prefecture. Governor Hirayama said the Man Gyong Bong should not be allowed to make another port call until the allegations about it smuggling ballistic missile parts out of Japan are clarified.

The Man Gyong Bong was scheduled to make 10 trips to Japan through the end of September. It has not made a visit since January.

The North Korean residents' group says the cargo-passenger ferry will not resume operations until Japan "improves" its policy on the ship.