• Kyodo

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The Japan Coast Guard began work Thursday morning to salvage a suspected North Korean spy ship that sank in the East China Sea in December after a shootout with coast guard vessels.

At about 8 a.m., the coast guard lowered two submersibles — one manned and one unmanned — at the site of the wreck about 390 km west-northwest of Amami-Oshima Island, Kagoshima Prefecture.

The unmanned submersible will examine the wreckage, which lies at a depth of about 90 meters, to check for obstacles, while the manned sub will check the seabed surrounding the wreck, the coast guard said.

The operation was initially scheduled to start Wednesday but was postponed because of rough seas. Waves about 1.5 meters high covered the site Thursday morning, according to the coast guard.

Once the examination is completed, obstacles will be cleared from around the wreck, a task that is expected to take about six days.

The 3,992-ton patrol ship Izu is serving as the command ship for several coast guard vessels providing security in the area.

The salvage is expected to be completed by the end of July at the earliest, the coast guard said.

The ship sank in China’s exclusive economic zone. Beijing gave Tokyo permission to undertake the salvage operation and has two observer ships in the vicinity.

Japan believes the ship is North Korean in origin and was probably engaged in spying or drug-trafficking activities when it was spotted in Japanese territorial waters. North Korea has denied any connection with the vessel but denounced its sinking as “an act of piracy.” Earlier reports said it was not clear whether the ship sank as a result of the firefight or was sunk by its crew.

There were an estimated 15 people on board, all of whom are believed to have died in the incident. The remains of four people have been recovered by the coast guard.

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