Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi remained vague Friday on whether a suspected North Korean spy boat had entered Japan’s exclusive economic zone in the Sea of Japan before its sighting was made public Wednesday.

“We cannot say clearly” whether the boat was in the economic zone before being spotted, Koizumi told reporters at his office. The government said Wednesday the boat was outside Japan’s EEZ when it was first sighted.

Transport minister Chikage Ogi said she was informed that the boat was outside Japan’s EEZ when it was spotted, while Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda said he believes the boat had not entered the EEZ even before Wednesday’s announcement.

They were commenting on reports by the Yomiuri Shimbun and the Sankei Shimbun that the government concealed information that the boat was within Japan’s EEZ.

“We have received no information that the boat entered the economic zone,” Fukuda told reporters separately.

Defense Agency chief Gen Nakatani told reporters, “We cannot verify” whether the reports were true.

Agency photos released Thursday show the vessel has double stern doors. The ship closely resembles other “disguised” North Korean spy ships that have been found near Japan in the past, the agency said, without elaborating on the nature of the deception.

The vessel’s funnel bears a North Korean flag and the hull bears the name of a North Korean city.

The Sankei said the government was apparently playing down the incident by concealing the information, ahead of the Sept. 17 summit in Pyongyang between Koizumi and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.

Fukuda also denied the newspapers’ allegation that the government knew that other vessels had departed a North Korean port with the ship in question before it was spotted by a Maritime Self-Defense Force patrol plane.

The Yomiuri said the information was contained in intelligence provided by the United States to the Japanese government.

“We are not supposed to disclose how we obtain information,” Fukuda said.

The Sankei said the ship was in Japan’s economic waters from Monday through Wednesday afternoon.

The newspapers also said the vessel resembles ships that are believed to be North Korean and may have been used to abduct Japanese in the past. The stern doors could be used for deploying smaller vessels, including landing craft, they quoted investigators as saying.

The government believes at least 11 Japanese were abducted to Pyongyang between 1977 and 1983 and many of the victims were taken away from beaches in Japan.

It is widely believed North Korea abducted the Japanese to use them for espionage-related activities for Pyongyang. North Korea has denied the allegations.

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