A bill aimed at barring North Korean ships from entering Japan passed the House of Representatives transportation committee Tuesday with the support of the ruling coalition and the largest opposition party.

The bill, which was revised from its original form through an agreement among the Liberal Democratic Party, its coalition partner, New Komeito, and the Democratic Party of Japan, is expected to clear the full Lower House on Thursday. It is then expected to clear the House of Councilors before the current Diet session adjourns later this month.

The bill is designed to give the government another diplomatic card in its dealings with Pyongyang, allowing Japan to halt the flow of people, goods and hard currency between the two countries.

It follows on the heels of legislation that revised the Foreign Exchange and Foreign Trade Law, enabling the government to slap unilateral sanctions on the North by halting cash remittances to the reclusive state.

The ship bill stipulates that the government can ban, for a certain period of time, port calls by ships from a designated country or those that have stopped at that country.

The ban would come into force after a government decision at a Cabinet meeting that such a measure is necessary to maintain national peace and security. The Cabinet decision would eventually have to be approved by the Diet.

Captains who violate the law would be sentenced to up to three years in prison, fined up to 3 million yen, or both. The ruling and opposition parties agreed at one point to lower the fine to a maximum of 1 million yen, but they later decided to keep the 3 million yen figure that was in the ruling coalition’s original draft.

The bill is a temporary measure, subject to abolition when the international situation surrounding Japan warrants it.

The move comes in the wake of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s recent trip to Pyongyang, during which he promised North Korean leader Kim Jong Il that Tokyo would not invoke sanctions as long as the North abides by the Pyongyang Declaration agreed to by the two leaders in September 2002.

But Diet members who support the legislation expect the government to keep the option of sanctions open, in line with the strategy of using both dialogue and pressure to deal with Pyongyang.

“Our nation’s consensus is that pressure is necessary in dealing with North Korea, and I believe the government will invoke (sanctions) when necessary,” LDP Secretary General Shinzo Abe told a news conference.

“I expect North Korea to deal with (Japan) in a way that (sanctions) will not be imposed,” he said. “But there’s a possibility (the sanctions will be used) if the North fails to act in a faithful manner.”

Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda refused to say at a regular news conference Tuesday whether he believes North Korea has violated the Pyongyang Declaration.

“Right now, (Japan and North Korea) are in the stage of making mutual efforts about that point, so I cannot say things so candidly,” he said.