Fri, Jun 04, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Bill passed to close Japanese ports to North Korean ships


Japan's Lower House of parliament yesterday endorsed a bill allowing Tokyo to ban North Korean ships from Japanese ports, a move aimed at putting pressure on Pyongyang to resolve a feud over abducted Japanese.

The bill mainly targets a controversial North Korean ferry, the only passenger link between the two countries and a vital source of hard currency for North Korea's impoverished economy, lawmakers who drafted the legislation have said.

The bill is expected to be enacted later this month after being approved by parliament's Upper House.

The legislation comes on the heels of new laws that entered into force this year, under which Tokyo can impose economic sanctions on the communist state.

But at a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang last month, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi vowed not to invoke sanctions as long as the North respects the "Pyongyang Declaration" that the two leaders signed two years ago.

Koizumi and Kim pledged in that declaration to seek a comprehensive solution to pending issues including North Korea's nuclear and missile programs.

At the Pyongyang summit, Koizumi won the release of five North Korean-born children of Japanese abducted by the North decades ago.

There has been disappointment in Japan that Koizumi did not bring the two daughters and American husband of abductee Hitomi Soga back from North Korea. Washington considers Soga's husband, Charles Robert Jenkins, an army deserter.

Japan is trying to have them reunited in a third country before their return.

There is also anger that the summit failed to clarify what happened to other abductees North Korea has said are dead or who are unaccounted for.

Kim admitted at his first meeting with Koizumi in September 2002 that 13 Japanese citizens had been kidnapped in the 1970s and 1980s to train spies. Kim said eight of those had died.

Japanese government officials and politicians said the bill would widen Tokyo's policy options in dealing with North Korea, with which Japan has no diplomatic ties.

Efforts to establish diplomatic ties have stumbled over the abductee dispute and a multilateral stalemate over Pyongyang's nuclear arms program.

The bill endorsed by the Lower House would allow the government to ban "designated ships" from entering Japanese ports if it was necessary to maintain "Japan's peace and safety."

Proponents of the legislation and some analysts say banning the North Korean ferry, the Mangyongbong-92, from travelling to Japan would deprive Pyongyang of badly needed foreign currency.

Several thousand North Korean residents of Japan travel on the ferry each year to visit their families in the communist state and many are believed to take cash with them.

The 9,672-tonne ship, carrying some 190 passengers and 65 tonnes of food and other goods, left Niigata port in northern Japan earlier yesterday after a one-day stay there.

Japanese investigators believe the ship had previously been used to smuggle drugs and missile parts.

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