OSAKA — Experts on North Korean issues say that simply banning port calls by the North Korean ferry Man Gyong Bong-92 would not stop shipments to the reclusive state of sensitive materials like devices that can be used for missile development.
“It’s easy enough to send goods to North Korea via other countries, like China. I doubt if Japanese authorities would have found smuggled goods had the ship visited Niigata,” said Lee Young Hwa, a former member of the pro-Pyongyang General Association of Korean Residents in Japan (Chongryun).
“Electronics components manufactured in South Korea and China are being brought into North Korea, making Japanese technology less vital to North Korea than it once was,” said Lee, a Kansai University professor and expert on North Korea’s economy. “Therefore, a coordinated effort is needed among Japan, South Korea and China to stop (shipments of) not only Japanese technology, but technology from elsewhere that could be used by the North Korean military.”
Former North Korean agents in Japan and abroad have testified that the Man Gyong Bong smuggled Japanese technology which was used in North Korea’s missile development program.
But journalist Hataru Nomura, who has written several books on secret transfers of cash and goods to North Korea, said it is clear the ship is not the only smuggling route.
“The dispatch of over 1,000 Japanese officials to Niigata in advance of the Man Gyong Bong’s scheduled visit was overkill, a ploy designed to reassure the public that the government is serious about a problem it long ignored,” Nomura said.
“Sensitive equipment is leaving Japan in other ways, being sold to front companies in Asia before being brought into North Korea.”
Last month, police raided the Tokyo-based firm Meishin on suspicion it attempted to send electronic devices to Pyongyang via Thailand that could be used in North Korea’s uranium enrichment program.
In 1997, a group of Diet members traveled to South Korea and viewed a captured miniature North Korean submarine. South Korean authorities gave them a list of components used in the vessel, and they found that roughly 20 percent of the parts came from Japan.
“The submarine’s global positioning satellite equipment, radar and high-frequency communications equipment were all made in Japan. It was smuggled into North Korea without the knowledge of the Japanese manufacturers,” said Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker Ichita Yamamoto, one of those who viewed the submarine.
“Japan must now take steps to stop the flow of goods into North Korea via third countries,” said Yamamoto, an Upper House member. “Of course, it’s impossible to catch everything. But stricter export controls and cooperation with other countries might stop as much as 70 percent of goods that could be modified for military use.”
Japanese authorities have avoided one of the potentially most direct ways of stopping the flow of money and goods to North Korea — a formal investigation into Chongryun and Chongryun-affiliated businesses, as well as their trade with North Korea.
“A lot of historical issues would be involved with such an investigation,” said Yamamoto, who indicated that it would open a Pandora’s box of secrets about collaboration with North Korea by Japanese officials. “Right now, there are many allegations, but hard evidence is needed, and that evidence is extremely hard to get.”
Meanwhile, Chongryun officials say it makes little difference to their operations if the Japanese government beefs up monitoring of the Man Gyong Bong.
They said they are more concerned about the inconvenience to Korean residents of Japan who want to visit relatives in North Korea.
“We don’t need the Man Gyong Bong as a commercial cargo ship, because it’s not the only way — or even the most important way — that we send goods to North Korea,” said an official of Chongryun’s Osaka branch who does business with North Korea.
“In fact, we didn’t want the ship to visit this time because of the hysteria created by the Japanese government and media, and originally told North Korea that sending the ship would only inflame things unnecessarily and make it harder for Korean residents in Japan to visit the country.”
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