NIIGATA – The North Korean ferry Mangyongbong-92 left the port here for home Tuesday evening after the transport ministry green-lighted its departure despite finding some minor problems with its safety equipment.
In the morning, the crew of the 9,672-ton ferry submitted to the Land, Infrastructure and Transport Ministry its plans to fix the equipment, clearing the hurdle that had delayed its homeward voyage, ministry officials said.
The ferry will sail back to Wonsan, carrying about 200 passengers, including students of Korean schools in Japan on a school trip as well as other Korean residents of Japan. It is carrying about 100 tons of goods, daily necessities and electric appliances.
An official of the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan (Chongryun), a pro-Pyongyang group, said it is not clear if the Mangyongbong-92 will make the next port call at Niigata on Sept. 4 as planned.
The ferry arrived in Niigata on the Sea of Japan on Monday morning, making its first port call in Japan in seven months. It had planned to pull out at 10 a.m. Tuesday.
But its departure was delayed for nine hours after Japanese authorities said Monday evening that they had found minor safety infractions and instructed the crew to fix them.
Although the problems cannot be quickly fixed due to a shortage of time, the ministry said it would allow the ferry to leave Japan if crew members promise not to use the problematic equipment during the voyage and to fix the problems when they reach North Korea.
The Japan Coast Guard and the Tokyo Regional Immigration Bureau held another round of onboard inspections Tuesday afternoon.
In Tokyo, transport minister Chikage Ogi told a news conference that the ministry will not allow the ship to enter port if the problems have not been fixed by their next scheduled arrival Sept. 4.
The vessel, which sails irregularly between Wonsan and Niigata, is the only direct transport link with North Korea for Korean residents of Japan. It has been a source of controversy after allegations that it was involved in espionage and smuggling.
Rigid inspections by Japanese authorities following the allegations failed to turn up any evidence of espionage or smuggling, only minor safety problems.
After eight hours of inspections Monday, the ferry was found to have a lack of evacuation route signs, no radio equipment for communicating with aircraft and no functioning fire extinguishers in the engine room, officials said. An exhaust duct in the galley was not lined with fireproof material and equipment to remove oil from dirty engine room water did not work.
The government imposed the so-called port state control inspections on the ferry — the first it has faced since 1993 — in response to the spying and smuggling allegations.
The ferry canceled a Niigata port call in June after the government warned it would carry out strict security checks. North Korean authorities upgraded onboard equipment, adding a high-speed lifeboat and sprinklers, before it sailed again.