- The Washington Times - Friday, March 22, 2002

On March 18, Japan and China held upgraded vice ministerial security talks. Topping the agenda was the "mystery ship" that sank in China's 200-nautical-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in late December after a chase and gunbattle with Japanese coast guard vessels.

Despite Chinese reservations, the Japanese government is leaning toward salvaging the unidentified vessel. But revealing the vessel's origin and purpose for all the world to see could open a Pandora's Box of implications for political and security relations in northeast Asia.

Both China and North Korea have denied any connection with the craft, which was trying to pass itself off as a fishing vessel. Indeed, China has expressed concern with Japan's use of force, and North Korea has called the incident "brutal piracy and unpardonable terrorism."

Theories on the boat's origin and purpose range from a North Korean military spy ship, to a North Korean state-sponsored drug-smuggling boat, to a renegade Chinese or North Korean vessel engaged in such smuggling.

It is even possible though this is considered unlikely that it was what it initially seemed to be to the Japanese coast guard: a Chinese fishing boat.

Evidence favoring a civilian smuggling or fishing boat is that the ship emerged from a group of Chinese fishing vessels before it entered the Japanese EEZ. And it was trying to reach such a group when it was attacked and sank. Moreover, it had a Chinese name on its bow, it appeared to be flying the Chinese flag, it was equipped with lamps for squid fishing, and it was painted a shade of blue used by Chinese fishing boats.

But all this was probably camouflage.

There is more evidence in favor of it being a North Korean state-sponsored spy or smuggling boat, including the facts that the boat came from a North Korean port and communicated with North Korea on a frequency used by the latter's all-powerful Socialist Workers' Party. Moreover, cigarettes and candy recovered from the bodies of two crewmen were manufactured in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital.

Identifying the nature and mission of the ship has potentially significant political implications for northeast Asia. Indeed, salvaging the ship has become a diplomatic tug of war between China and Japan, with the United States pushing Japan to go ahead.

China seems to be opposed to Japan's attempts to learn more about the vessel and its origin. Indeed, it has called on Japan to respect its EEZ rights and interests in regard to salvaging the ship, and to not take any action that would "escalate or complicate the situation."

To underscore its concern, China sent its own ships to monitor Japan's activities at the site. Japan maintains that its actions were justified and that it does not need China's permission to salvage the ship. If Japan proceeds with the salvage without China's consent, this could damage Sino-Japanese relations.

But political concerns go deeper than the legalities of a Japanese salvage operation in China's EEZ.

Beijing may be worried that the raising of the ship could uncover evidence of Chinese involvement state-sponsored or otherwise. If this were the case, it could increase Japan's suspicions of China's political intentions.

On the other hand, if the vessel turns out to have been a North Korean military-sponsored spy ship, it will further stress already-poor Japan-North Korea relations.

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi seems intent on proving that the boat was North Korean, and consequently that North Korea is "a threat" to Japan. This could justify a trend toward a more robust military posture by Japan.

However, increased Japanese "militarization" would engender a strong negative reaction throughout northeast Asia and, in a worst-case scenario, trigger an arms race involving China, Russia and Japan. South Korea would also be seriously concerned.

Moreover, this development would most likely set back South Korea's quest for reconciliation with the North.

The United States is convinced that it was a North Korean military spy vessel and had even reportedly offered to deploy its naval vessels to guard Japanese salvage activities.

Washington is apparently considering some sort of action against North Korea and would expect Japan's cooperation.

In particular, the United States would want to use its bases in Japan for its operations. And it may expect Japan's Self-Defense Force to assist it in its efforts to interdict suspected North Korean missile shipments to the Middle East.

This would be considered part of the "war on terrorism." U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld will visit Japan in April and this topic is expected to be on the agenda.

Meanwhile, China's lack of cooperation in this matter is not surprising from a political standpoint.

Beijing prefers to have communist North Korea survive as a buffer between it and capitalist South Korea. Any development that would increase pressure on fragile and vulnerable North Korea from Japan and the United States would not be in China's interest.

There are other risks for Japan in determining the nature of the vessel. If it was indeed a North Korean spy ship, then it will further inflame public opinion against North Korea and embolden Japanese nationalists, increasing rightist pressure on the Koizumi administration.

On the other hand, if the evidence is inconclusive or favors a Chinese state-sponsored smuggling boat or renegade Chinese fishermen-turned-smugglers, then Japan will have been seen to have used deadly force against a boatload of civilians, lawbreakers though they may have been.

This could harm Sino-Japan relations and detract from the boost in bilateral relations expected from the 30th anniversary in September of Sino-Japanese normalization of diplomatic relations.

On the plus side, for Japan, there may be a cornucopia of intelligence to be gained from raising the vessel, including the characteristics of North Korean spy vessels (if that is what it was) and the codes and encryption systems used in its radio communications. This information should enable the Japanese Self-Defense Force to be more effective against North Korean spy ships.

*Mark J. Valencia is a senior fellow and Yoshihisa Amae is a degree fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu.

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