A used Japanese fishing boat allegedly exported last August to North Korea without government approval is believed to have entered a port in the northeast of the country where two apparent spy ships fled after being chased out of Japanese waters in 1999, Tokyo police said Monday.

Public security officials of the Metropolitan Police Department said they suspect the fishing boat has now been modified for use by North Korea in spying activities.

The officials said the vessel is believed to be one of a number of used Japanese fishing vessels sold to the North by four men recently arrested over illegal exports to the country.

They said it is believed the North has also modified those vessels for use as spy ships.

The North Korean port in question, situated near the country’s borders with Russia and China, is a leading harbor city hosting key industries such as iron manufacturing.

According to South Korean intelligence officers, it is used as an information-gathering base by a strategic operational unit within the ruling Workers Party of Korea for covert operations in the South, including espionage activities.

The fishing boat left Onahama port in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture, last August. It is believed to have then traveled to the North Korean port, sailing around Kagoshima Prefecture and making a stop in South Korea, Tokyo police said.

The March 1999 intrusion by the two unidentified vessels believed to be North Korean spy ships marked the first time Japan has been involved in a defensive action against foreign vessels since the end of World War II.

The vessels were challenged and pursued by the Japan Coast Guard and Maritime Self-Defense Force after refusing to stop. Japanese patrol boats fired warning shots while patrol planes dropped bombs near the fleeing ships.

The ships were believed to have subsequently entered the port in northeastern North Korea via another port about 50 km away. Neither port was named.

The four men arrested in connection with the fishing boat case are Yun Kyong Jung, 51, a ship broker based in Pusan, South Korea; Yoji Kishimoto, 59, president of Matsushima Kaiun, a ship-dealing company based in Tagajo, Miyagi Prefecture; Jumpei Maeda, 67, also a ship dealer; and Hiraku Sato, 34, an employee of Matsushima Kaiun.

Police said earlier that the four men arrested in the case submitted false documentation for exporting the used fishing boat to the North last June in violation of the Foreign Exchange and Foreign Trade Control Law.

They claimed in the application to the then Ministry of International Trade and Industry that the boat was to be sold to an Indonesian fisheries company, police said.

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