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Spy Ship Exhibit Stirs Up Japanese

June 15, 2003|Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writer

TOKYO — It's a twisted pile of junk that attracts as many as 12,000 visitors a day. And it just might change Japan's political landscape.

Japanese are waiting patiently in the sun and rain for hours to gawk at the "Choryo 3705," a North Korean spy ship recently placed on display. It was salvaged from the East China Sea after a firefight with Japan's coast guard.

"It was very shocking because we're such peaceful people," said Akira Okada, 70, an auditor. "We really must think about protecting ourselves better. We've been very naive."

The exhibit is a two-edged sword for many Japanese. The 100-foot, 44-ton ship is loaded with Japanese technology, convincing some that the government's long-standing policy of avoiding confrontation had allowed Pyongyang to play their nation for a fool.

But the spy ship's relatively modest size, cramped living quarters and almost complete lack of creature comforts also engender some sympathy. The ship's hull showed evidence of repeated patching over many years, some of which, at one-tenth of an inch thick, would have provided little protection against the sea. A sign and flower display near the ship's rusted bow urge the public to remember the North Korean men who lost their lives.

"I was called up by the military at age 14 when I was a student," said Yoshio Takemoto, 72, a hotel worker, recalling his experience during World War II. "I was so determined to shoot a plane down. The North Koreans have the same sort of training I did then. I can understand how they could get brainwashed by their government."

The rusting hull shows vestiges of white, blue, green and orange coats of paint. Intelligence experts say the ship posed at various times as a Chinese or Japanese fishing vessel depending on its mission, where it was going and how closely it was being observed. Pre-cut paint sponges found on board in the shapes of Chinese characters allowed its crew to quickly rename the vessel and change other identifying marks.

From the outside, the ship looked exactly like any of the thousands of fishing vessels that navigate Japan's territorial waters. A plaque in Japanese characters reads: "Safety is the Priority Number One."

Secreted within the hull, however, were four giant Russian-made engines that gave it 10 times the horsepower of an ordinary fishing vessel, allowing it to travel at speeds of up to 33 knots.

Two large doors at the rear of the ship reveal a large cavity where a smaller, high-speed boat hid. Using an ingenious buoyancy system, the mother ship could be partially flooded, allowing its faster offspring to free itself and ferry agents and contraband to and from Japan's shores at speeds of up to 50 knots, or about 55 mph. The last few hundred yards to shore could be navigated with the scuba gear and torpedo-shaped swim motors found on board.

A pair of North Korean switches on the ship, meanwhile, allowed agents to set off explosive charges and sink the ship if trouble ensued, and a 14.5-millimeter mobile gunnery battery was also hidden within the deckhouse on rails, ready to be rolled into position in seconds.

Japan has long known that North Korean ships plied its waters. But for decades, it chose to turn a blind eye or, at best, shoo them away. That changed Dec. 22, 2001, when three Japanese coast guard ships and an airplane gave chase over a 16-hour period as the Choryo zigzagged toward China.

At 10 p.m., they clashed on the edge of Chinese territory, about 240 miles off southwestern Japan. Despite several warning shots by the Japanese, the North Korean ship refused to halt, instead returning fire with artillery, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. In the fight, the Choryo sank, a move reportedly initiated by the North Korean crew, killing an estimated 10 North Korean agents.

It took almost nine months for Japan to salvage the Choryo from its 300-foot grave. Although there were technical difficulties, some suspected that Tokyo worked slowly to hold off embarrassing Pyongyang. But the rapid souring of relations last fall, after North Korea admitted abducting 13 Japanese during the 1970s and 1980s, left Tokyo with little to lose diplomatically.

Once at the surface, the 1,032 items found aboard the rust bucket left little doubt that its crew wasn't in the fishing business. Investigators believe that they were ferrying agents and illicit drugs into Japan.

In addition to the Kim Il Sung pin and North Korean cigarettes found on the corpses, investigators retrieved four machine guns; two rocket-propelled grenade launchers; an 82-millimeter recoilless surface-to-air gun; two antiaircraft missiles; and various grenades, handguns, explosives and ammunition.

"I didn't think human beings could do such things," said Yukiko Yawata, 27, after seeing all the spy gear. "All I could think about was the poor Japanese abduction victims jammed into a ship like that."

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