Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Controversial North Korea Ferry To Resume Japan Trips

A North Korean ferry once suspected of carrying parts for Pyongyang's missile programme arrives in Japan tomorrow for the first time this year, reviving a key link between the reclusive communist state and the outside world. Increasing concerns that North Korea may carry out a nuclear test and lingering anti-North Korean sentiment stemming from abductions of Japanese citizens by Pyongyang's agents years ago mean the ship will hardly be welcomed by many Japanese. ''The country has said it has nuclear weapons and it is antagonising rest of the world,'' said Ryutaro Hirata, head of a group supporting families of Japanese abductees. ''Why should this ship be allowed to travel freely? Japan should impose sanctions and stop it from coming,'' said Hirata, whose group and others plan to greet the ferry with protests when it docks in the northern port of Niigata. It would be the first port call in Japan by the 9,672-tonne Mangyongbong-92 since since Japan tightened insurance requirements for foreign ships to pay for the cost of cleaning up accidental oil spills. It last made the trip in December. Japan toughened the requirements, which the Mangyongbong-92 initially failed to meet, after several uninsured North Korean ships grounded in Japanese waters in recent years, causing oil spills that had to be cleaned up at Japanese taxpayer expense. Japanese officials say Mangyongbong-92 is used to transport hard currency back to impoverished North Korea. In the year ended March 2004, cash totalling about $25 million was hand-carried directly from Japan to North Korea on board North Korean ships, mainly the Mangyongbong-92, according to the Japan's Ministry of Finance. Japanese investigators also believe the ship was previously used to smuggle drugs and missile parts. North Korean defectors have said more than 90 per cent of the parts used in North Korean missiles are imported from Japan. But inspections were tightened after North Korea admitted in 2002 to having abducted Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s to help train spies in Japanese language and culture. VITAL LINK TO HOMELAND A group representing pro-Pyongyang Koreans living in Japan said the ferry is a vital link between the two countries, which have no diplomatic ties. About 200 passengers, mainly students at Korean schools in Japan and other ethnic Koreans travelling to visiting relatives in North Korea, will board the ferry in Niigata, said a spokesman for the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan (Chongryon). ''It's a humanitarian mission. It has nothing to do with the nuclear issue,'' the spokesman said. In addition to cash, many passengers carry all sorts of goods -- from food to electronic appliances -- to support the meager livelihoods of their relatives in North Korea. About 600,000 Koreans live in Japan and about 150,000 of them consider themselves to be North Koreans. Most are descendants of Koreans who voluntarily came or were forcibly brought to Japan during its 1910-1945 colonisation of the Korean peninsula. Loyalty to the North, however, has been strained for some after North Korea admitted in 2002 that its agents had abducted Japanese nationals to help train spies. Korea experts have said the pro-Pyonyang Chongryon has suffered internal dissent brought on by disillusionment with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, and remittances to the communist state have dwindled over the years. The Chongryon spokesman said the group hoped that the ferry would be able to return to its former schedule of shuttling between Japan and North Korea every 10 days or so.

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