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A Japanese salvage ship on Wednesday raised the suspected spy ship that sank in the East China Sea in December during a firefight with Japan Coast Guard vessels.

A gigantic crane ship chartered by the coast guard brought the wreck up from some 90 meters under the surface, revealing a 30-meter-long, 180-ton vessel equipped with a set of outward-opening double doors on its stern — a feature common to North Korean spy ships identified in the past.

Intelligence sources said the doors might be hiding a space used to hold small submersible craft capable of taking spies to shore.

The doors bore the Chinese characters for the city of Shipu, a fishing port in Zhejiang Province. This suggests the vessel was masquerading as a fishing ship from southwestern China.

The mystery ship also had four propellers, indicating it was equipped with four engines that enabled it to cruise at high speed.

Although reports immediately after the battle suggested the crew scuttled its ship to destroy evidence, no holes were found in the hull.

That surprised officials at Japan Coast Guard headquarters in Tokyo, who thought its patrol ships saw an explosion take place on the vessel via infrared sensors shortly before it went down.

“The water (that sent the ship to the seabed) may have come in from the space between the double doors,” a senior coast guard official said.

Another official said the four engines only deepened their suspicions that it was a spy ship.

“Few fishery ships of this size are equipped with as many as four engines,” the official said. “If a ship carried four engines, there would be little space to store the fish,” the official said.

After it was raised, the ship was placed in a pool on the 115-meter-long salvage ship to retard oxidation and preserve its condition, coast guard officials said.

The salvage ship, the 15,850-ton Yoshida Go No. 60, is expected to transport the mystery ship to Kagoshima Bay by Saturday or Sunday.

The vessel will then be unloaded at a local port there around Sept. 20 after it is inspected for explosives, the officials said.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda said Wednesday it will be difficult to identify the raised ship before the Tuesday summit between Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang.

The results of the investigation are widely expected to give the Japanese government heavy diplomatic ammunition Tuesday for the summit between Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang.

However, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda said Wednesday it will be difficult to identify the raised ship before the unprecedented summit.

“The identification process itself may take more than 10 days,” Fukuda said at a news conference, explaining that it must be brought to Kagoshima and confirmed safe before a full-scale inspection can start.

Fukuda said he had no comment about how the incident could affect the talks in Pyongyang. The talks will be the first bilateral summit held between Japan and North Korea since the Stalinist state was created after Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.

The ship may have been engaged in secret missions involving drug-running or communication with spies that have already infiltrated Japan, coast guard sources said.

“In order to clarify the activities and criminal purposes of the suspicious ship, we will conduct examinations in detail and focus all our efforts to thoroughly clarify (questions involving the ship),” Japan Coast Guard Commandant Kenichi Fukaya said in a written statement.

The salvage operation began at 4 a.m. Wednesday under the scrutiny of a Chinese government plane and four Chinese ships, and ended shortly after 1 p.m. The salvage site, about 390 km off Amami-Oshima Island in Kagoshima Prefecture, is in China’s exclusive economic zone.

Preparations for the operation started in late June but were repeatedly disrupted by typhoons.

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