• Compiled from Kyodo, staff reports

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NIIGATA — Relatives of Japanese abducted by North Korea decades ago protested Monday in Niigata over port calls by a North Korean ferry allegedly involved in illicit operations, even though the ship canceled its latest voyage.

The Man Gyong Bong-92, which sails between Wonsan in eastern North Korea and Niigata on an irregular basis, canceled the scheduled Monday morning port call.

The move followed news that Tokyo would have banned it from carrying passengers if inspections during the visit determined it was violating lifeboat safety standards.

Its captain notified the vessel’s agent in Niigata in a telegram received around 12:30 p.m. Sunday that it would not sail from Wonsan.

Nevertheless, the relatives of Japanese spirited away in the 1970s and 1980s called for economic sanctions on the communist North, holding banners that read “We are against the port calls!” and chanting, “Give us back our abducted relatives!”

In Tokyo on Monday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda told a regularly scheduled news conference that Japan will continue to take a tough stance regarding inspection steps on future visits by the vessel.

“Whether (the ship) makes port calls in the future is up to North Korea to decide, but we will take the necessary legal measures,” the government’s top spokesman said.

Fukuda explained that the government received no official notification from North Korea about the cancellation, but he added that Japanese public sentiment against the ship’s visit must have influenced the decision.

“I believe it was (the result of) North Korea’s overall judgment” of the situation, Fukuda said. “There is public sentiment (against the port call) here, and we were on high alert against any unpredictable happenings.”

The Man Gyong Bong is suspected of being involved in drug smuggling, illegal cash remittances, espionage activities and carrying weapons parts to North Korea.

“If North Korea says there is no problem with the Mang Gyong Bong, then the ship should come to Japan with full confidence,” Fukuda added.

During a news conference Sunday, Nam Sung U, deputy head of the pro-Pyongyang General Association of Korean Residents in Japan (Chongryun), blamed Japan for the cancellation, saying its high alert created a discouraging atmosphere for the ferry’s first call in about five months.

He said the vessel’s departure was put off “in view of Japan having set up an unprecedented state of high alert and creating a savage atmosphere.”

In response to the cancellation, Chongryun told people planning to board the vessel for North Korea not to go to the port.

The ship’s operator has yet to decide whether to reschedule the trip and will be closely watching how Japanese authorities respond to the move, Nam said.

In Monday’s protest, Toru Hasuike, 48, whose 45-year-old brother, Kaoru, was among those abducted to the North but who was allowed to return to Japan last October, said, “The Man Gyong Bong didn’t come after our voices of outrage reached their shores.”

Hasuike criticized the Japanese government’s dealings with the ship, saying: “The government remained vague about the link between the tightened inspection of the ship and the abduction issue. The time has come for our government to send a clear message to North Korea about the abductions.”

Akihiro Arimoto, 74, whose daughter, Keiko, was abducted to North Korea at age 23 and reportedly died there, said, “The diplomatic dispute with North Korea should only be solved through the imposition of economic sanctions against North Korea, not through dialogue.”

On Sunday, the government deployed 1,900 police officers and customs inspectors to monitor and inspect the ship during its planned 25 hours in Niigata, while people opposed to the port call also gathered, including relatives of abductees.

Some 800 protesters were on hand at the port from roughly 100 groups, mostly rightwing extremist organizations.

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