TOKYO - Japan detained two North Korean cargo ships in Japanese ports yesterday, moves that North Korea denounced as sanctions and that Japan defended as safety inspections.
"We are ready to thoroughly inspect all North Korean vessels at ports across the country," Chikage Ogi, Japan's transport minister, told a news conference, hours before her inspectors scoured the North Korean ships for violations.
The detentions were ordered a day after Bush administration officials said they were encouraging allies to put pressure on North Korean shipping by enforcing safety rules and searching for illegal drugs, a major North Korean export. The policy is part of a broader effort to force North Korea into negotiating an end to its nuclear bomb program.
Inspectors worked all day in Maizuru, a western port that received about 25 percent of the 1,344 port calls by 147 North Korean ships to Japan last year.
After the inspections, Maizuru transport ministry officials ordered the detention of the Namsan 3, a 298-ton freighter, until its North Korean crew of 16 could fix three major safety violations: lack of charts of surrounding seas, a hole in its bulkhead and a doorsill to the cabin that was too low to prevent water from flooding in.
Farther north, at Otaru port in Hokkaido, local transport officials ordered the detention for safety violations of the 178-ton Daehungrason 2, which was carrying a cargo of crabs.
Over the past decade, several North Korean freighters have become stranded along Japan's coast. Invariably, the state company owners have walked away from the shipwrecks, refusing to pay fines or to remove the hulks.
Yesterday's detentions came after North Korean authorities suspended the country's lone ferry link with Japan to protest the new safety inspection policy.
North Korea's state-run press denounced the inspections yesterday.
"If this is part of `sanctions' against the DPRK, we cannot but regard it as a very serious development," the official Korean Central News Agency said, using the initials of North Korea's formal name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
The news agency also called the safety inspection policy "another sinister political attempt to lay siege to the DPRK."
It called the policy "part of the Bush administration's foolish and shameful moves to ostracize the DPRK politically and morally on the international arena and isolate and stifle it by terming it a `rogue state.'"