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Regulating Its Scrap With N. Korea

Times Staff Writer

It’s the last chance for these old bikes. Bent and abandoned by their owners, they are being piled aboard boats in this western Japanese port, a tangle of spokes and handlebars rescued from the scrap heap.

Their unlikely saviors are North Koreans. For the last 20 years, fishing boats from the secretive communist country have made the overnight run across the sea separating the two countries, chugging into Sakaiminato and a few other Japanese ports to swap cargos of crab and clams for anything that might have value back home.

These days, that means even Japanese garbage. Broken refrigerators and old kerosene stoves. Blackened bananas. Busted cassette players.

It is a scratchy trade from the Japanese perspective, though all that shellfish coming into Japan and all those tired goods going to North Korea add up to $160 million a year, according to official figures. But now Tokyo aims to choke off the flow as punishment for what it says is North Korea’s implausible explanation of what happened to at least eight Japanese citizens kidnapped by Pyongyang’s agents in the 1970s and ‘80s.

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The issue of the abductees is an emotional one in Japan, with polls showing that as much as three-quarters of the public favors using economic sanctions to force North Korea to reveal the fate of the victims. (North Korea says the abductees are dead but Japan lists them as missing.) The United States and other countries are urging Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to avoid antagonizing North Korean leader Kim Jong Il as they try to convince him to give up his nuclear weapons program.

Koizumi has tried to ease the domestic pressure for action against North Korea by backing new regulations to curtail boat traffic between the countries. On Tuesday, Japan began requiring all boats weighing more than 100 tons to carry expensive insurance against oil spills and other environmental damage.

The regulations do not single out North Korea by name, but they affect many of the North Korean fishing vessels that dock in Japan, of which less than 3% have carried insurance. Japanese lawmakers have made it clear in media interviews that the new requirements are aimed at cutting off the flow of used consumer goods to North Korea.

The North Koreans are aware that the measure targets them. Last week, the government issued a statement warning of “counteraction” if Japan went ahead with any tough steps to restrict their trade.

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Caught in the middle are Japanese ports such as Sakaiminato in Tottori prefecture. Tottori’s politicians and businessmen have worked to cultivate links with North Korea, which is a short journey across the water but a long slog when it comes to building trust, given Pyongyang’s suspicion of outsiders.

That relationship now makes the 38,000 residents of Sakaiminato a prime target for Japan’s ultranationalist right. As Japan’s relations with North Korea have worsened over the abduction issue, right-wing activists have frequently descended on Sakaiminato to condemn anyone who deals with Pyongyang.

The activists drive around town in black vans festooned with Japanese flags. Chanting “Stop buying North Korean crab” and other slogans, broadcast at piercing volume through loudspeakers, they berate the Sakaiminato workers and businessmen.

The intimidation has made it hard for the traders to defend the business that makes the port’s economy tick. Most refuse to talk to journalists, fearing that speaking out may attract the dreaded vans to their homes and factories.

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Politicians who do raise their voices on the subject say the new regulations are likely to result in drastic job cuts and bankruptcies. Hardest hit will be the crab canning industry, which employs about 2,000 people and relies on North Korea for half the crabs it processes.

“These are economic sanctions on Sakaiminato,” said Kenichi Mizusawa, deputy chairman of the local council. “These small boats from North Korea have never had a single accident, and people here don’t want to see the trade ties cut.

“That doesn’t mean,” he added quickly, “that we think it’s OK to kidnap somebody.”

Local politicians have considered establishing a fund that would cover the North Korean boats’ insurance costs but failed to raise enough capital.

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Now the canning industry says it will look to new sources of crab, including Alaska and Canada. Privately, some industry leaders are hoping publicity about those new sources will change Sakaiminato’s reputation as a friend of North Korea.

How the North Koreans will handle a cut in trade is less predictable. On a cold morning last week, seven boats were berthed in Sakaiminato, overflowing with Japanese junk.

The crews are not allowed to set foot on land, so deals are done by Japanese who board the boats with interpreters in tow.

“Sometimes we have orders for pianos, motorbikes or TVs in good condition,” said Akiharu Haze, owner of Meiji Trading Co. in Sakaiminato, which takes and fills orders for the North Koreans. “Those are for high-ranking officials.”

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A glance inside the hold of a boat called the Hui Mong showed it would return with cases of Budweiser, whiskey and a huge flat-screen TV.

Haze said the North Korean captains tell him they will return in boats that weigh in under the 100-ton limit. Still, he predicts there will be fewer boats and that the volume of trade will decline.

Yoshihiro Katayama, Tottori’s governor, has built a career trying to open communication and trade with North Korea. He is lobbying Tokyo for compensation for local businesses hurt by the new regulations, though he says the measures will be worth it if they force North Korea to change its ways.

“I have met various people in North Korea and they say, ‘We have no problems in our country,’ ” said Katayama, who speaks Korean. “But over drinks at night, some say, ‘We need to change.’

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“When North Korea becomes a normal state,” he said, “there will be big things for Sakai.”

Hisako Ueno of The Times’ Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report.


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