- The Washington Times - Monday, December 24, 2001

TOKYO Japan's armed forces sank their first ship since World War II over the weekend, opening fire on a mystery vessel believed to be a North Korean spy ship.
The Japanese coast guard yesterday recovered three bodies from the East China Sea, apparently crew members from the vessel with Korean letters on their life jackets.
A dozen patrol boats and 13 planes from the coast guard and two navy destroyers chased the ship, first seen in Japan's waters on Friday. It stopped only after sustaining a direct hit to its hull on Saturday.
After putting out a fire, its sailors set sail again. Even when finally cornered, they opened fire on their pursuers, wounding two Japanese coast guardsmen, before their vessel sank.
Japan's prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, described the ship's behavior as "bizarre" and called for heightened vigilance against intrusions by North Korean spy ships.
"It is regrettable to see such armed, unidentified ships prowling," Mr. Koizumi said. "We need to consider what can be done."
The weekend's battle, northwest of the Japanese island of Amami Oshima, was the first occasion in 48 years that Japanese coast guardsmen have attacked foreign ships operating illegally in their national waters.
Japan's postwar constitution bans its military from taking part in combat abroad unless Japan itself is under direct threat or attack.
However, relations between the economic giant and the communist pariah state have been tense for years. Japanese planes and ships opened fire on a suspected North Korean spy ship in 1999.
Officials said the ship sunk on the weekend was similar to that vessel, which was rigged as a fishing boat but able to move at high speed, and the crew members reportedly numbering 15 appeared well-trained in gunnery on the high seas.
The 1999 engagement was the first involving Japan's navy since World War II. The previous year North Korea fired a rocket it said was carrying a satellite over Japanese territory, provoking anxiety about the scale of its missile program.
Home to the largest U.S. military presence in Asia, Japan has been in a state of high alert ever since the terrorist attacks of September 11.

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