The government said Friday it will start a monthlong effort early next week to salvage a suspected North Korean spy ship that sank in the East China Sea in December after a gunbattle with the Japan Coast Guard.

The estimated 5.88 billion yen operation to salvage the 30-meter, 180-ton ship is expected to take at least one month, weather permitting.

Japanese intelligence sources suspect the sunken ship is from North Korea, given the fact that similar vessels have been used in the past to allegedly smuggle stimulant drugs and deliver and extract agents operating in Japan.

Two chartered ships carrying special submersibles are scheduled to reach the area over the sunken vessel, which lies some 390 km off Amami Island, Kagoshima Prefecture, on Tuesday evening, according to coast guard officials.

One of the two ships, the 657-ton Shintatsu Maru, will leave Yokohama at 10 a.m. on Saturday, carrying an unmanned submersible. The 498-ton Shinyo Maru, the support ship for a manned submersible, will leave from Kagoshima on Monday, the officials said.

Scheduled to start Tuesday, the salvage operation will be lengthy because of the preparation required and because the pressure at 90 meters, the vessel’s depth, will make undersea work of any duration difficult.

The coast guard also said that the approach of typhoons could also disrupt the effort.

The first stage of the operation is expected to take about six days, involving a support ship dragging a plow around the sunken ship to remove obstacles on the sea floor so that divers can freely and safely conduct underwater activities.

Divers will then clear obstructions on the ship and close off valves and other openings to prevent fuel oil from leaking during the salvage work.

That operation is expected to take four days.

Vacuum tubes will then be inserted under the hull in two locations to clear areas for divers to feed two 72-mm steel cables wires under the vessel to create a harness to raise the ship.

A crane aboard a 12,000 ton-base ship will then raise the sunken vessel to the surface.

The coast guard initially hoped to start the salvage about a month earlier, but recently soured relations with China over an unrelated issue required the government to continue cautious diplomatic talks, which also covered possible damage to fishery and other maritime resources in China’s economic exclusive zone, where the vessel is lying.

Coast guard officials said the salvage is a necessary procedure in determining the mission of the ship, which fired hundreds of rounds at coast guard patrol ships and even used what is believed to be a rocket launcher.

“If we can’t clear up questions such as what their purpose was, why they were so heavily armed and why they even had rockets, we can’t prepare for another intrusion,” said transport minister Chikage Ogi, who heads the Japan Coast Guard.

“I have no doubt that the nation wants this salvage operation, and that the Japan Coast Guard must carry it out.”

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