• Kyodo

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The Japan Coast Guard will bulletproof the wheelhouses of its patrol boats after two apparently North Korean spy vessels intruded into Japanese territorial waters in March 1999, it was learned Tuesday.

The Maritime Self-Defense Force dispatched destroyers to pursue the mystery ships on March 23 but abandoned the chase some 24 hours later when the vessels left the geographic boundary of Japan’s Air Defense Identification Zone.

The ships, which bore the names of Japanese fishing boats, were equipped with a number of antennas and no fishing equipment was visible on their decks, the Defense Agency said at the time. Although they were last seen fleeing toward North Korea, Pyongyang later denied any involvement.

Sources close to the matter said the coast guard patrol boats are being fitted with bulletproof steel plates to protect crew members and make the boats more effective in the event of future encounters with suspicious ships.

Work on seven high-speed patrol boats in the 180-ton class and two larger patrol vessels with helipads has already been completed, the sources said. Another two midsize ships will also have bulletproof wheelhouses by March 31, the end of the current fiscal year.

High-speed patrol ships, which can travel at 35 knots or faster, are the most likely vessels to approach suspicious boats and try to prevent them from getting away. But their wheelhouses are made from light metal alloys to increase speed and could be vulnerable to gunfire.

In emergency situations, the wheelhouse windows would also be covered by steel shutters, with the crew using remote-controlled cameras to navigate.

The sources did not specify the vessels being renovated or the thickness of the steel plate but said the ships involved are those assigned to the Sea of Japan coast and regional coast guard headquarters along the East China Sea.

The government has allocated roughly 500 million yen since fiscal 1999 for the changes. Because work on one high-speed patrol boat will cost about 15 million yen, some experts believe it is likely that crew quarters have also undergone similar modifications.

The key areas of three high-speed craft newly deployed this spring at regional coast guard offices in the cities of Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture, Maizuru, Kyoto Prefecture, and Niigata are already bulletproof.

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