• Kyodo

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A North Korean ferry that carries passengers and freight between North Korea and Japan arrived Wednesday morning at Niigata port on its first stop this year.

The 9,672-ton Man Gyong Bong-92 occasionally plies across the Sea of Japan between Niigata and the North Korean port of Wonsan. Passengers on this trip included some 120 students of ethnic Korean schools in Japan who had been visiting North Korea.

The ship is regularly used for visits to North Korea by Korean residents of Japan and to carry food, electronic products and other items, including daily necessities.

But with relations between Japan and North Korea becoming increasingly strained over the issue of abducted Japanese and North Korea’s resumption of its nuclear program, there have been calls in Japan to bar the ship.

On Wednesday, protesters, including members of the Niigata Prefectural Assembly, demonstrated near the port, holding banners demanding that North Korea allow the family members of the five known surviving Japanese abductees to come to Japan. The five were allowed to return in October.

Some of the demonstrators scuffled with officials from the pro-Pyongyang General Association of Korean Residents in Japan (Chongryun) as the ship docked amid tight security.

Kim Jong Song, who led the children during their trip, described Pyongyang residents as being calm, although they were aware of the heightening tensions surrounding their country.

When it last called at Niigata in late October, a senior North Korean official previously denied entry into Japan was aboard, although he did not actually disembark in Japan, according to Japanese security sources.

There are also allegations that the ship has been used to bring in illicit drugs to Japan and illegally take cash back to North Korea.

The prefectural assembly has called for inspecting the ship’s cargo, while lawmakers in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party have demanded legislation to refuse the ship’s entry into Japan.

In Tokyo, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda told a news conference that Japanese authorities “have steadfastly been conducting monitoring and law enforcement” targeting all ships visiting Japan and that the same is being done for the Man Gyong Bong-92.

Fukuda did not disclose specifics of whether authorities have stepped up customs and other inspections of the ship.

But the top government spokesman did not deny that the checks have been reinforced, such as by increasing the number of inspectors.

In December, the government decided at an informal Cabinet meeting to consider stepping up inspections of cargo offloaded from North Korean ships.

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