• Kyodo

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Japan may ban a North Korean ferry suspected of involvement in illicit activities from carrying passengers if inspections during a scheduled port call Monday determine it violates safety standards for lifeboats, sources close to the case said Saturday.

If the Man Gyong Bong-92 fails to provide high-speed lifeboats, as required under an international treaty, the Land, Infrastructure and Transport Ministry will be able to issue such an order, the sources said.

In that event, the cargo-passenger ship would only be allowed to carry cargo when it leaves Niigata port for Wonsan, eastern North Korea, leaving behind some 260 people. Most of those passengers are students of pro-Pyongyang Korean ethnic schools scheduled to take part in school excursions, they said.

In a related move, a school in Toyoake, Aichi Prefecture, has decided to put off a two-week trip for 110 third-year high school students that was to start Tuesday and use the ship, school officials said.

Under the treaty, Japan tightened up regulations on passenger ships to require better equipment — such as high-speed lifeboats, sprinklers and the global positioning system — after it last conducted a port control safety inspection on the vessel in 1993.

But as the transport ministry only notified the ship’s operator on May 29 about its first port checks in a decade, the operator will be unlikely to replace the current slower lifeboats in time, the sources said.

Tokyo has also refused to supply fuel oil to the ship after Pyongyang admitted in October that it has a covert program to develop nuclear weapons, they said.

The vessel will also have to undergo repairs to meet other requirements, and pro-Pyongyang Korean residents of Japan are preparing parts to carry out repairs after its arrival, they said.

The postponement of the excursion by the Aichi school was decided on the orders of the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan (Chongryun) last month, as the vessel’s itinerary was not finalized at the time, the school officials said.

The school organizes an excursion to North Korea using the Man Gyong Bong-92 every June, and plans to reschedule this year’s trip to later this month or July, the officials said.

Japanese authorities suspect the ship, which travels between Wonsan and Niigata on an irregular basis, was involved in transporting contraband materials with potential military uses and unauthorized delivery of money.

The Japanese government decided Friday to step up surveillance and safety checks on the vessel.

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