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N.Korea ferry leaves Japan, can return regularly

( 2003-09-05 10:36) (Agencies)

A North Korean ferry suspected of smuggling drugs and missile parts in the past left Japan for home on Friday after passing safety checks that cleared the way for the controversial vessel to resume regular voyages.

The massive white-hulled Mangyongbong-92 -- the sole passenger link between Japan and North Korea -- had arrived on Thursday for the second time in 10 days at the northern port of Niigata, where it was met by protesters angry over Pyongyang's nuclear arms program and the abduction of Japanese citizens decades ago.

Prior to an August 25 visit, the ferry had not traveled to Japan for seven months, apparently because of Tokyo's insistence on tight checks to see if the ship met international safety standards or was involved in illegal trade.

Anti-North Korean sentiment flared up in Japan following Pyongyang's admission last September that it had kidnapped 13 Japanese in the 1970s and 1980s to train spies, plus the crisis over North Korean nuclear arms program.

Five abductees, three of them from Niigata, have returned, but their seven children remain in North Korea.

The United States and Japan agreed last May to clamp down on the illegal trade in drugs that helps fund North Korea and on the export of missile parts to Pyongyang.

The ferry's voyages are important to North Korea's struggling and isolated economy because of the goods and cash it carries back, analysts say.

"We think that the Japanese authorities should revise their unfriendly treatment of Mangyongbong-92," an official of the Pro-Pyongyang General Association of Korean Residents in Japan told reporters.

"We would like your cooperation for the smooth resumption of regular visits," he added.

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