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Sunday, 23 December, 2001, 09:34 GMT
Japan's hard line on coastal incursions
Map of area where a suspected North Koresan vessel was sunk by Japanese boats on Saturday, 22 December 2001
The latest incursion was off Japan's southern coast
Charles Scanlon

The Japanese coast guard says it suspects an unidentified vessel sunk by its patrol boats on Saturday night was a North Korean spy ship.

The determination and vigour of the Japanese response to the boat's presence inside Japan's exclusive economic zone follows growing frustration at perceived incursions around its coast in recent years.

In March 1999, two suspected North Korean spy boats escaped Japanese waters with coast guard and naval vessels in hot pursuit.

Japanese warships fired warning shots but failed to stop the intruders.

Since then, laws have been introduced to allow Japanese patrols to shoot at suspicious vessels that ignore warnings.

Questions raised

But difficult questions are already being asked about the latest incident.

The unidentified boat was not operating inside Japanese territorial waters when it was spotted.

It was, however, within Japan's 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone, where Japan claims the right to protect its fishing and mineral resources.

Japanese officials were quick to argue that the coast guard had acted in self defence.

They said it was possible the intruder was scuttled by its crew rather than sunk by Japanese fire.

Officials were quoted as saying that the pursuers failed to rescue any crew members from the water because of rough seas, but also because they were concerned the survivors would resist.

Uneasy neighbours

The clash comes at a time of fast deteriorating relations between Japan and North Korea - uneasy neighbours at the best of times.

North Korea recently announced that it was abandoning efforts to help Japan locate 10 missing Japanese civilians who Tokyo believes were abducted from the shore by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s.

That decision followed a raid by Japanese police on the de facto North Korean embassy in Tokyo - the headquarters of the Korean Residents' Association.

The police arrested a senior official in an investigation into embezzled funds from a failed credit union, which served North Korean residents in Japan. It is suspected the money was being channelled to the regime in Pyongyang.

In the past, Japan has largely turned a blind eye to the remittance of large sums of money to North Korea - a key economic lifeline for the Stalinist state.

Regional signals

Japan's more aggressive response to suspicious activity around its coast will send a signal to other Asian countries.

China and South Korea are both alert to what they see as growing nationalism in Japan.

They are already suspicious of a change in the law which enabled Japan to send warships to provide logistical support for the United States fleet in the Indian Ocean - activities previously restricted by Japan's pacifist constitution.

They are likely to see the latest incident as more evidence of growing Japanese self-confidence.

The BBC's Charles Scanlon
"The incident shows how vigilant Japan has become"
See also:

23 Dec 01 | Asia-Pacific
Japan searches for boat crew
22 Dec 01 | Asia-Pacific
Japan fires on 'intruding' boat
26 Mar 99 | Asia-Pacific
North Korea denies 'spy ship' charge
01 Dec 97 | From Our Own Correspondent
Japan and Russia try to make up over four windy islands
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