Japanese detain ferry to N. Korea, cite safety reasons

Nations at loggerheads over Pyongyang's nuclear program ahead of talks

August 26, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NIIGATA, Japan - Citing safety violations, Japan detained in the port here yesterday the lone ship that ferries passengers between Japan and North Korea, two countries at loggerheads over Pyongyang's nuclear program.

As a sailor on the top deck triumphantly waved North Korea's red star banner and waitresses led rousing choruses of the "Song of Comrade Gen. Kim Il Sung," the white-hulled vessel docked here for the first time since January, when it was met by angry protesters.

Protesters were out in force, demanding an end to North Korea's nuclear weapons program and a full accounting for up to 100 Japanese believed to have been abducted to North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s.

"Warning: Lock your doors, the North Korean spy ship is back in town," boomed loudspeaker messages from one of dozens of black buses that Japanese nationalists drove here.

Referring to allegations that North Korea controls a large portion of Japan's pachinko, or pinball betting halls, another bus carried a banner reading, "Pachinko money is used to build atomic bombs."

Last year, the ferry docked once every two weeks. According to two North Korean defectors who testified recently before the U.S. Congress, the ship sometimes carried amphetamines for Japanese drug users and, buried among the used cars, millions of dollars in cash and parts for North Korea's missile and nuclear programs.

North Korean officials evidently chose yesterday for a return visit, calculating that Japanese authorities would not roil relations just before six-country talks that are scheduled to start tomorrow in Beijing over Pyongyang's nuclear program. But by the end of the day, a small army of Japanese inspectors had come up with five safety violations that could keep the mixed cargo and passenger ferry detained through the talks.

"While the six countries are negotiating in Beijing, the atmosphere should be eased," So Chung On, an official with the main pro-Pyongyang group for Korean residents in Japan, said as about 100 inspectors boarded the vessel. "That's why we hope the Japanese authorities will not check exaggeratedly."

But behind the scrupulous safety checks is widespread Japanese hostility toward North Korea, 600 miles west. Mori Morisawa, a reporter for the newspaper Niigata Nippo who has written about the ferry for years, said: "The Japanese people's interest and anger against North Korea has skyrocketed."

Lines of blue-uniformed police officers, 1,200 in all, kept rival demonstrators apart and separated the nationalists' trucks from the local office of the pro-Pyongyang group.

"On behalf of Japanese people, I say, `Get out!'" one rightist bellowed at a Korean residents' news conference. "You take money out of the country and use it for building atom bombs."

A month ago, anti-North Korea anger grew into violence when a bullet was fired at the pro-Pyongyang group's office here and fake bombs were placed in front of two offices of a credit union affiliated with North Korea. Similar attacks on banks and offices affiliated with North Korea took place Saturday night in southern Japan.

The ship detention was one of several setbacks to North Korea just before the talks.

On Friday, on the strip of Russian land that borders North Korea, 1,000 students played the part of North Korean refugees for a huge civil defense drill. Designed to cope with an outbreak of war or the collapse of Kim's government, the drill involved erecting tents, conducting medical exams and distributing clothing and food to the 1,000 "refugees."

Recently, authorities in the Russian Far East have said their region could absorb up to 200,000 North Koreans.

In South Korea, a country that routinely shows great patience with North Korea, officials brushed off a threat by North Korean officials to withdraw from an international athletic event in Taegu. The North Koreans demanded an apology for a fracas on Sunday involving Norbert Vollertsen, the German human rights campaigner.

But television footage showed three North Korean journalists attacking Vollertsen, who was on crutches and wearing a neck brace at the time. Vollertsen was leading a protest against rights violations in North Korea.

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