Feature: North Korean spy ship on display

By HIROSHI YAMAZAKI  |  May 24, 2003 at 2:21 AM
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TOKYO, May 23 (UPI) -- A North Korean spy ship that sunk in 2001 after a gun battle with Japanese patrol boats will go on display in Tokyo.

The decision to show the ship publicly marks a shift in the Japanese government's public relations with regard to North Korea. Tokyo in the past tended to suppress negative information concerning the North, ostensibly not to undermine negotiations to track Japanese abductees and other delicate diplomatic issues with its unpredictable neighbor across the Sea of Japan.

The 44-ton, 30-meter-long (100-foot-long) vessel sank off Amami Oshima Island in the East China Sea in December 2001 when its crew -- according to Japanese accounts -- apparently caused an explosion inside the ship after a chase and exchange of gunfire. It was salvaged last September and has been kept at a Kagoshima dock, where it was displayed to the public for the past week.

The ship is now on its way to Tokyo and its Museum of Maritime Science, which plans a four-month exhibit under the auspices of the Nippon Foundation.

According to a maritime specialist, the ship could sustain 60 kilometers (35 miles) per hour, thanks to its V-shape stem and four 1,000-horsepower engines. Since the 1960s 21 North Korean ships have fled Japanese patrol boats, according to the Japan Coast Guard -- vessels tacitly acknowledged as spy vessels by North Korean leader Kim Jong Il at a landmark summit with Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi last October.

A Japanese television station Friday showed inside the ship, capable of accommodating a small speed boat, which is suspected to have been used to send intelligence agents ashore and extract them. Japanese authorities believe such capability could also have been the means by which North Korea whisked away Japanese nationals kidnapped to train North Korean agents.

North Korea admitted for the first time at the October summit that it had indeed abducted some dozen Japanese, often as couples or young adults, in the 1970s. Since then some have returned home, but any children born to them have been blocked from leaving North Korea. Rights advocates are campaigning to uncover the fate of several other Japanese who disappeared or allegedly died since their abduction.

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