- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 27, 2001

TOKYO (AP) North Korea denied any link to a ship that traded shots with Japanese patrol boats before it sank last weekend, and accused Japan yesterday of conducting a smear campaign against it.
The clash occurred Saturday when the unidentified ship, which was plying southern waters within Japan's exclusive economic zone, ignored orders to stop for inspection and instead sped off toward China.
It ended six hours later when it sank in the East China Sea following a firefight with Japanese gunboats.
Two bodies from the mystery ship's estimated crew of 15 have been recovered; the rest are still missing. Three Japanese coast guard sailors also were injured.
Breaking its silence for the first time since the incident, North Korea slammed what it called a "smear campaign launched by the Japanese authorities linking [North Korea] for no reason" with the ship.
A statement issued through its official Korean Central News Agency said the high-seas clash was "brutal piracy and unpardonable terrorism of a modern brand that could be committed only by samurais of Japan in defiance of international laws."
Japanese media reported yesterday that Japanese defense officials had gathered evidence linking North Korea to the ship.
Days before the pursuit at sea, Japan's Defense Agency acting on a tip from the U.S. military tapped a radio exchange carried on a Pyongyang frequency, Sankei newspaper and other Japanese media reported.
The U.S. military had spotted the ship near Japan's southwestern island of Amami-Oshima on Dec. 18, reports said. Radio communication indicated the suspicious vessel may have been on a drug-smuggling mission, Sankei reported, quoting unidentified Defense Agency sources.
Defense Agency official Ichiro Imaizumi said he could not comment on the reports. But he confirmed that Japan had reason to believe the sunken vessel was from North Korea, which sent a nearly identical ship into Japanese waters in 1999.
Japan wants to raise the ship to help determine what measures to take against the country of its origin. But Mr. Imaizumi said rough seas may prevent any salvage attempt until spring.
Officials also worry that raising the wreckage could pose diplomatic challenges because it sank outside Chinese territorial waters but inside China's exclusive economic zone. Any talk of lifting it from the bottom would require coordination with Beijing.
Officials have said the crew may have blown a hole in the ship to avoid capture. A Japanese sailor said he saw a bright flash aboard the vessel about two minutes before it sank.

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