Japan bans North Korean ferry visits for 6 months
TOKYO, July 5 (Reuters) Japan will ban visits by a North Korean ferry for six months as part of a package of initial sanctions responding to Pyongyang's missile tests today.
The Mangyongbong-92, long suspected to have been involved in carrying parts for North Korea's missile programme, had been set to visit Niigata on Wednesday for its seventh visit this year.
Banning the ferry is one of several steps responding to the missile launches, including barring officials from North Korean organisations in Japan from re-entering after visiting the North and halting already-rare charter flights.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe said Japan may also consider limiting fund remittances.
The ship, the only regular direct link between Japan and North Korea, is an important conduit for carrying money to the isolated communist state.
''What (else) we choose to do depends on North Korea's response,'' Abe said.
A Japanese Foreign Ministry official said he was unable to comment at this point on what other sanctions might be imposed.
A Coast Guard official said the ferry was outside Niigata, in northern Japan, and was being watched by patrol vessels.
Of the ship's 209 passengers, virtually all are students at ethnic North Korean high schools in Japan, according to an official at the company that manages tours for the ferry, Abe said the passengers would be allowed to disembark as a humanitarian measure.
North Korea test-fired at least six missiles on Wednesday, ratcheting up tensions in north Asia and drawing international condemnation.
The pro-Pyongyang General Association of Korean Residents in Japan (Chongryon) said in a statement that the ship was a key humanitarian lifeline for ethnic Korean residents in Japan.
''This ship is used for elderly people and students to visit relatives and take school trips,'' it added.
A Chongryon member told Reuters the missile launches and the ferry issue should be treated differently.
''I question whether is it right to endanger the lives of ethnic Koreans in Japan,'' he said.
North Korea has said in the past that it would consider the imposition of sanctions tantamount to a declaration of war.
Laws passed two years ago allow Tokyo to suspend remittances and trade, as well as take other steps to restrict the flow of money and goods.
Japanese investigators believe the Mangyongbong-92 was previously used to smuggle drugs and missile parts.
North Korean defectors have said more than 90 percent of the parts used in North Korean missiles were brought from Japan.
About 600,000 ethnic Koreans live in Japan, and about 150,000 of them consider themselves to be North Koreans. Most are descendants of people who came voluntarily or were forcibly brought to Japan during its 1910-1945 colonisation of the Korean peninsula.
REUTERS SK VA VV1143