It has been six months since an unidentified armed vessel, presumably a spy ship from North Korea, sank in the East China Sea off Amami Island, Kagoshima Prefecture, following a gun battle with Japan Coast Guard patrol boats. An operation to salvage the ship finally began on Tuesday.

The delay was unavoidable because raising the ship was also a diplomatic issue that involves a question of Chinese sovereignty. This is because the sinking occurred in China’s exclusive economic zone, just outside Japan’s. Now that Beijing has agreed to the salvaging of the vessel, however, it is hoped that the operation will yield sufficient evidence to unravel the mysterious incident.

Diplomatic negotiations with China have not been easy. Initially, Beijing opposed a Japanese move to lift the sunken ship but later reversed its position, apparently to avoid a further deterioration in bilateral relations in a year marking the 30th anniversary of the normalization of Sino-Japanese ties. The international campaign against terrorism may also have helped.

However, China is demanding compensation for its fishermen operating in the area, on the grounds that their activities will be necessarily restricted. The two sides have agreed to continue talks on this matter in parallel with the salvage work.

In recent months, Japan-China ties have become strained again. In April, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi aroused Chinese criticism by visiting Yasukuni Shrine, which honors the nation’s war dead, including 14 Class-A war criminals. And in May, the seizure by Chinese police of a North Korean family seeking asylum at the Japanese consulate in Shenyang angered many Japanese.

It appears, however, that Tokyo-Beijing relations are now on the mend. Reportedly the two sides have effectively settled the Shenyang incident with an agreement to conclude a consular treaty and other diplomatic arrangements to prevent the recurrence of similar cases. This may have also contributed to the accord on ship salvage.

So far the Japan Coast Guard has conducted surface searches and underwater probes, and has recovered four bodies, rocket shells, automatic rifles and a package of cigarettes apparently made in North Korea. However, divers have not been able to get inside the ship. So the outcome of the salvage operation is a matter of great concern.

The investigations to date make it almost certain that the vessel was a spy boat from North Korea. It remains unclear, however, specifically what kind of activity it was performing at the time. There is speculation that it was transporting secret agents, gathering intelligence in waters around Japan or smuggling stimulant drugs or narcotics. Now it seems to be only a question of time before the ship’s identity as well its mission can be established.

According to government plans, the 180-ton ship — which lies at a depth of 90 meters — is to be raised at a cost of more than 5 billion yen in an elaborate operation that is expected to last about a month. Fifteen people are said to have been aboard the vessel when it sank on Dec. 22 following the shootout with the JCG patrol boats.

In recent years, waters around Japan have been infiltrated by unidentified ships, apparently from North Korea. In March 1993, a vessel disguised as a trawler intruded into territorial waters off the Noto Peninsula in the Sea of Japan, and the government for the first time dispatched Self-Defense Forces destroyers to police the area. The ship, ignoring warning shots, escaped to the north.

The frequent entry of such vessels into Northeast Asian waters has raised tensions in the region, posing security threats to Japan. So far no conclusive evidence has been obtained on these maritime intruders. That makes the salvage operation even more important. One crucial question is how North Korea will react if the ship’s nationality is identified beyond doubt.

During the shootout three JCG members were wounded, and the two patrol boats took more than 100 hits. This time, too, the ship escaped out of Japan’s exclusive offshore area. As yet it is not clear precisely what happened and, especially, why the patrol boats were unable to seize the intruder. A review of the patrol system, including equipment, is in order.

But Japan must be careful not to overreact. Although threats posed by unidentified ships are real, countermeasures must be worked out in ways that do not add to tensions in Northeast Asia. Utmost caution must be particularly exercised in areas outside Japan’s territorial waters. Preventive measures primarily depend on efforts to build confidence with neighboring countries and ease tensions in the region.

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