Japan will urge North Korea at the upcoming summit in Pyongyang to stop sending vessels on espionage and other shady missions in the Sea of Japan, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda indicated Thursday, in light of the suspicious ship pursued the previous day.
“It is very possible” Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi will take up the issue in his Sept. 17 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, Fukuda told reporters, adding, “The latest incident is unlikely to affect the schedule of the Koizumi-Kim meeting.”
Suspicions are mounting in Tokyo that the unidentified vessel was a North Korean spy ship, due to its appearance and to indications it had a large stern hatch that could be opened to deploy a small submersible. “But we cannot conclude it was one,” Fukuda said.
Later Thursday, the Defense Agency released photos of the ship that were taken by an MSDF patrol plane over the Sea of Japan.
The photos show that the form of the ship in general looks similar to what was believed to be a North Korean spy ship found in these waters in 1999. It bears something that looks like the North Korean national flag painted on a funnel and two Korean characters indicating a North Korean city on its stern.
Commenting on the photos, a senior official at the agency’s intelligence division said, “We cannot help questioning if it is a North Korean spy ship.”
However, he also indicated that a spy ship wouldn’t be bearing the national flag.
Even before the latest incident, Koizumi had been expected to urge Kim to refrain from dispatching such boats. This is because of the sinking in the East China Sea of what Tokyo believes was a North Korean spy vessel in December after a shootout with Japan Coast Guard patrol ships. Japan has yet to identify that boat, but is working to salvage the vessel.
The ship spotted Wednesday was sighted by a Maritime Self-Defense Force P3C patrol aircraft at 4:02 p.m. about 400 km north-northwest of the Noto Peninsula in Ishikawa Prefecture, outside Japan’s exclusive economic zone.
Early Thursday, defense and police authorities stopped monitoring the ship after it left Japan’s air defense identification zone at 12:37 a.m., government officials said.
Coast guard ships and MSDF P3Cs had monitored the ship on radar after ending their confrontation with the vessel up to the ADIZ line, at 133 degrees east longitude.
The ship went out of the radar range of JCG patrol vessels at 3:19 a.m. about 520 km northwest of the Noto Peninsula, cruising at 13.1 knots, apparently bound for North Korea, the coast guard said.
The ship disappeared from P3C radar at 9:26 a.m., government officials said.
At around 1 p.m. Wednesday, the Defense Agency intercepted suspicious electronic communication waves from the Sea of Japan, which prompted the scramble of P3Cs that later spotted the ship.
But the JCG, which is tasked with being the first to confront unidentified maritime intruders, was not alerted until 5:15 p.m. by the Defense Agency, according to coast guard officials.
The agency and coast guard had agreed to communicate with each other more promptly after they drew criticism for delays by the agency in providing confidential information when the JCG chased the vessel, first spotted in Japanese waters, in December.
“I want to examine the process, because we decided to share information at an early stage although (the information) may be unreliable,” Toshiki Aoyama, administrative vice minister at the Land, Infrastructure and Transport Ministry, said.
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