Japan inspects North Korea ship over counterfeit bill

TOKYO, Reuters

TOKYO, Reuters Japanese police and coast guard officials inspected a North Korean ship docked near Tokyo on Wednesday after allegations that a crew member had used a counterfeit bill to buy a used bicycle.

The incident, which local media reported involved a fake 10,000 yen note worth about US$83, came hours before the first high level exchange between Japanese and North Korean officials since Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi took office in April 2001.

North Korea has long been believed to use counterfeiting as a source of funding for its cash-strapped regime, along with drug smuggling and weapons sales.

A police official confirmed that an inspection was underway of the freighter “Hung Song 8” in the city of Funabashi, about 10 km (six miles) east of Tokyo, but could give no further details.

In January, Japanese authorities inspected another North Korean freighter after a false tip that suspicious people in wetsuits had come ashore. Authorities found nothing unusual after examining that freighter.

Japan and North Korea have no official diplomatic ties, and relations were strained by an incident last December when a suspected North Korean spy ship intruded into Japan’s exclusive economic waters, and later sank after an exchange of fire with Japan’s coast guard.

Japanese Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi was scheduled to meet with her North Korean counterpart, Paek Nam-sun, later on Wednesday in Brunei on the sidelines of the 23 member ASEAN Regional Forum, hosted by Southeast Asian nations.

They are expected to discuss the sensitive issue of at least 11 Japanese that Tokyo alleges were abducted by North Korea and forced either to become spies or to train spies.

North Korea denies the charges.

Although Japan has expressed hope these talks will be a step towards normalization of relations, some observers have said that any major breakthrough is unlikely.

However, the secretive communist state has recently shown increasing signs of openness.

Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov was quoted this week as saying, during a visit to Pyongyang, that North Korea is ready for unconditional talks with Japan and the United States.