Japan begins salvage of N. Korean ship


TOKYO, AFP

By Hiroshi Hiyama

Japan began work Thursday to salvage a suspected North Korean spy ship from the bottom of the East China Sea, the coast guard said, amid reports that the vessel was carrying missiles.

The operation to salvage the ship, which sank in December, was delayed for two days by high waves.

The Japan Coast Guard released its mini submarine Hakuyo at 8:00 am on Wednesday, followed by the unmanned submersible Hakuyo 2000, a spokesman said.

“Hakuyo 2000 will check for and clear items that can become obstacles to the salvage process. Hakuyo will monitor and navigate the unmanned machine,” he said.

The salvage work was originally scheduled to start on Tuesday inside mainland China’s 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ), where the ship sank after a firefight with Japanese patrol boats.

However, high waves and bad weather prevented operations from getting underway.

The vessel is lying on the seabed some 90 meters (297 feet) underwater.

The coast guard decided to start work as seas in the area became somewhat calmer Thursday, with waves of 1.5 meters (five feet), the spokesman said.

The work is expected to take about one month, but it could take longer if weather remains rough, he said.

The mystery boat, apparently camouflaged as a fishing vessel and carrying a crew of about 15 people, sank on December 22 with the presumed loss of all on board after a firefight with Japanese coast guard patrol vessels.

Japan claims it needs to raise the ship to find out what country it came from. North Korea has denied any involvement in the ship’s operations.

The coast guard said last month that divers retrieved from the sunken ship two rocket launchers of the Russian-made RPG-7 type, one machine gun fixed to the deck and one automatic rifle resembling the Russian AK-47 model.

Unconfirmed media reports Wednesday said the ship was also carrying Soviet-made portable surface-to-air heat-seeking missiles and grenade launchers, among other weapons.

Government spokesmen have declined to comment on the reports beyond characterizing them as based on speculation.

The coast guard spokesman also declined any comment Thursday.

“We know that there are news reports. But we have nothing official to say,” he said, adding that the agency will release information about its findings as the salvage work progresses.

It has not yet been determined why the vessel went under but Japanese media have suggested that the crew deliberately scuttled the craft, which they say was involved in drug-smuggling or spying.