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Japan Officials Continue Scrutiny of N. Korean Ferry - 2003-09-04


For the second time in two weeks, a controversial North Korean ferry boat has arrived in the Japanese port of Niigata. The Japanese authorities are continuing a close scrutiny of the vessel, which the Japanese say has been used to smuggle missile parts and illegal drugs in the past.

The Mongyongbong-92 was closely tracked by Japanese naval vessels as it neared Niigata Thursday, four hours behind schedule. On shore, the North Korean ship was greeted by some one-thousand police officers and groups of demonstrators. These protesters, including relatives of Japanese citizens kidnapped by North Korean agents during the Cold War, shouted for the ship to go back home.

Supporters of North Korea also turned out to see the boat into port. On the vessel, which blared militaristic music, many of the 120 or so passengers waved large North Korean flags and smiled at the welcoming group.

Inspectors from the Japanese Coast Guard and the customs and immigration bureaus combed the 96-hundred-ton ship once it was in port, ostensibly to check for safety violations. A list of improvements to the ship had been faxed ahead of its arrival.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda says the inspection is nothing exceptional, just like the one made during the ship's last port call, and meant to ensure that the vessel is up to international safety standards. The Mangyongbong's departure last week was delayed for more than nine hours when it failed safety inspections. It was allowed to depart on condition that the defects be corrected prior to returning to Japan.

North Korea has condemned the unprecedented security, and rejected allegations by Japan and the United States that the ship has engaged in spying, smuggling and other clandestine activities. The ship is a vital lifeline for economically-strapped North Korea and the country's most prominent link with Japan, ferrying passengers and hundreds of tons of goods between the two countries. Before Japan stepped up inspections, the Mangyonbyong would visit Niigata 20 to 30 times a year.

Some observers say the back-to-back port calls - after a hiatus of seven months - are linked to North Korea's upcoming Independence Day and the demand by Pyongyang's elite for luxury foods to celebrate the holiday.

The vessel is scheduled to leave Niigata on Friday with more than 200 passengers, arriving in Wonsan, North Korea in time for the September 9 anniversary festivities.