Cabinet ministers Friday approved government-proposed sea patrol measures that call for more communication between the nation’s maritime authorities, following a failure in March to capture two suspected North Korean spy boats.
The operational plan, mapped out by the Cabinet Security Affairs Office, calls for the Maritime Safety Agency and Maritime Self-Defense Force to immediately exchange information should either encounter apparent foreign reconnaissance vessels.
In such an emergency, the Cabinet Secretariat, which is led by Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiromu Nonaka, will act as the intelligence hub for ministries and agencies, according to a statement released Friday by the Cabinet Security Affairs Office.
The government review of the March 23 incident, however, strictly maintained the condition of holding an urgent Cabinet meeting and gaining approval there before the Defense Agency chief can order the MSDF to engage in a coast guard mission — even though the Self-Defense Forces Law only requires approval from the prime minister in such cases.
Nonaka reminded reporters after Friday’s regular Cabinet meeting that the reviewed coast guard measures will not go beyond the current framework of laws and government customs.
However, when asked if the MSA and MSDF are allowed to fire at the hull of a rogue vessel during such missions, the top government spokesman only said, “We will discuss the proposal made by Mr. Nukaga.”
A Liberal Democratic Party project team on crisis management led by former Defense Agency chief Fukushiro Nukaga submitted an interim report Wednesday in which it proposed easing the restraints on the MSDF’s use of weapons on coast guard missions.
Defense Agency Director General Hosei Norota said in a news conference Friday that the agency will have MSDF destroyers and escort vessels equipped with 12.7mm or 20mm machineguns as well as infrared night vision equipment.
Norota also said the agency will improve the planned capability of the MSDF’s new missile boats, which are now under construction, so they can cruise faster than 40 knots and be made bulletproof.
The defense chief said the SDF will start drawing up its own coast guard manual as soon as a flotilla of MSDF destroyers returns from San Diego, where the U.S. Navy is currently demonstrating how to stop intruding vessels and conduct ship inspections.
“Personally, I think that there should be ways to allow the SDF to closely act with the MSA even before the situation develops beyond the MSA’s capacity,” Norota said, noting how the MSDF destroyers that chased the two intruding boats, disguised as Japanese fishing vessels, on the morning of March 23 were not allowed to fire even warning shots until the MSA gave up the chase.
The coast guard operation was turned over to the MSDF shortly past midnight of the following day.
The two intruding boats, which sported huge antenna arrays, fled to the North Korean port of Chongjing, according to intelligence sources.
The MSA, which is under the Transport Ministry, is the primary coast guard authority in Japan to cope with unidentified vessels.
Norota said that in a meeting Friday with Transport Minister Jiro Kawasaki, the two agreed to lay out a common operational manual for the SDF and MSA and carry out a joint exercise as soon as possible.
Kawasaki meanwhile said Friday that his ministry will set up a “dubious vessel” hotline with a specially dedicated three-digit telephone number to solicit tipoffs from fishermen and coastal residents.