• Kyodo

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No senior North Korean officials are aboard the North Korean ferry Man Gyong Bong-92, which is due to arrive Monday in Niigata amid a political uproar over its alleged involvement in illegal trade and espionage activities, sources said.

Japanese public security authorities say North Korea has used the 9,672-ton passenger-cargo ferry as the contact point for senior party and intelligence officials to meet with their operatives in Japan.

The sources said they used the manifest of the 76 crew members that agents for the Man Gyong Bong in Japan filed with Japanese authorities and other information to determine that no senior North Korean officials are on the ship this trip.

Japanese authorities allege that the Man Gyong Bong, which plies between Wonsan in eastern North Korea and Niigata port on an irregular basis, has been involved in smuggling contraband materials for potential military use, unauthorized money remittances and clandestine activities.

Japan has adopted stiff security and inspection measures for the vessel. Officials plan to have more than 1,100 police and customs inspectors monitor and inspect the ship during its 25-hour stay at Niigata port.

Niigata Prefecture issued a permit Wednesday for the ship to call at the port, and about 40 customs inspectors began examining freight to be loaded onto the ship, taking X-rays and opening boxes to check their contents.

The cargo is mainly clothing and household electrical appliances, as declared on export documents, prefectural and customs officials said.

The ship will arrive at the central pier of Niigata port at 8:45 a.m. Monday with 50 tons of sundry goods and about 20 passengers. It is scheduled to leave 10 a.m. the next day, carrying about 100 tons of cargo and some 260 passengers.

Citing one example of how North Korea has used the ferry for espionage activities, the National Police Agency said that when it called at Niigata last November, on board was a senior Workers Party official, Kang Jin Chol, who had been denied entry to Japan the previous month.

Kang met officials of the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan (Chongryun) aboard the ship, according to the NPA.

Chongryun, which allegedly has been involved in the ship’s shady activities, represents North Korea’s interests in Japan, as the two countries have no diplomatic relations.

In a related development, Masuo Okumura, head of the NPA Security Bureau, told the Diet on Wednesday that the Man Gyong Bong was used for illegally exporting 2,300 diving valves to North Korea in 1996 from Japan.

The nonmagnetic valves are subject to export restrictions because they can be used for military purposes, Okumura told the House of Representatives committee on land, infrastructure and transport.

A Tokyo trading house president and others were arrested in 1998 over the case but were later released after the Tokyo District Public Prosecutor’s Office decided to suspend criminal charges.

Japanese-made diving flippers were found in a salvaged North Korean spy ship that sank off Amami-Oshima Island in Kagoshima in December 2001 after a shootout with Japan Coast Guard vessels.

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