Japan officials recall chase of N. Korean spy ship

The Yomiuri Shimbun
A salvaged North Korean spy ship is seen in the Japan Coast Guard Museum in Yokohama on Dec. 17.

Dec. 22 marked 20 years since the sinking of a North Korean spy ship off Amami Oshima, an island of Kagoshima Prefecture, after a shootout with Japan Coast Guard patrol boats.

For the anniversary, The Yomiuri Shimbun interviewed Coast Guard officials who responded to the incident, which brought to light some of North Korea’s activities.

At 1:10 a.m. on Dec. 22, 2001, the JCG received a call from the then Defense Agency about a suspicious ship sailing in waters about 230 kilometers from Amami Oshima.

A 21-hour chase began.

At sea

Kojiro Tanaka, now 50 and the director of the Himeji Coast Guard Office, was the chief officer of the small patrol boat the Kirishima that was ordered to deploy from Koshiki Island in Kagoshima that day.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Kojiro Tanaka

As the bridge was not bulletproof, he placed steel plates 2 millimeters thick against the side windows.

At around 2 a.m. the Kirishima set sail into the stormy sea.

It was a little after midday when the Kirishima met up with fellow JCG boats and caught sight of the suspicious ship. It looked like a fishing boat, but there was no fishing gear in sight. Despite the presence of a chimney, infrared thermal imaging cameras did not detect any heat source.

The JCG ordered the ship to stop, but it did not obey. Fellow JCG boats then gave the ship a warning before firing warning shots into the air and the sea. Still there was no sign of the ship stopping.

So the JCG decided to open fire for the first time since 1953, when it fired on a ship of the Soviet Union.

The shots were fired by the patrol boats the Inasa and the Mizuki. As the suspicious ship came under attack, its crew members were seen calmly putting out fires.

“They were highly skilled,” Tanaka said. “That’s what convinced me it was not a fishing vessel.”

When the JCG boats tried to hem in the vessel and make contact with it, automatic pistols and machine guns were fired from the suspicious ship.

As Tanaka ducked for cover behind a machine gun pedestal, a tracer from the enemy ship flashed overhead. Tanaka said he didn’t feel afraid. Three shipmates on fellow boats, however, were injured.

The JCG boats returned fire. A few minutes later, the suspicious ship’s crew blew up their own ship, sinking it.

In September 2002 the sunken ship was salvaged and weapons such as rocket launchers and surface-to-air missiles were recovered. It was a spy ship as it had appeared to be.

The salvaged ship was about 30 meters long. In addition to the weapons, it also contained a small boat. The crew members all are suspected to have died. They are believed to have been involved in methamphetamine smuggling among other criminal activity. During the Japan-North Korea summit in 2002, Kim Jong Il admitted that the vessel was a spy ship.

On land

The shootout was shocking for Japanese society, but not for the JCG.

Among those who were handling the JCG’s countermeasures was Takahiro Okushima, assistant director of the Security Division at the time.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Takahiro Okushima

“From the beginning, we had been working with this kind of situation in mind,” said Okushima, now 62 and the commandant of the JCG.

He had in mind an incident in March 1999, when a suspicious ship was allowed to escape off the Noto Peninsula. The agency’s ships had given up the chase due to their insufficient speed.

Okushima said he thought at the time, “We can’t let them get away again.”

He added, “It is significant that we were able to expose the reality of the spy ship.”

Since the 2001 incident, no suspicious vessels or spy ships have been found, but illegal fishing operations by boats around the Yamato Bank in the Sea of Japan have become a problem.

“We will protect the safety of the seas,” Okushima said, “by not letting the incident fade away and being prepared for such events.”