'Made in Japan'- security threat?

Lawmakers press for stricter controls on high-tech exports after Japanese parts found in N. Korean vessels.

Ever since North Korea fired a Taepo Dong ballistic missile over northern Japan last August, the Japanese have been worrying about national security with new intensity. It's a state of mind known here as "Taepo Dong shock."

Now, amid reports that the North Koreans soon may attempt another launch, Japan is wrestling with the uncomfortable truth that North Korea's weapons contain some familiar components.

"We are being threatened by a missile that is in part made in Japan," says Ichita Yamamoto, a member of this country's parliament. He also says a North Korean semi-submersible vessel seized by South Korea was outfitted with Japanese-made sonar, radar, and communications gear.

Mr. Yamamoto and a parliamentary colleague are exposing this transfer of technology in order to promote draft legislation that would toughen export-control measures. Restrictions may not stop North Korean acquisitions, they concede, but they say it will at least give Japan a much-needed point of leverage to discourage aggression.

But even without new export restrictions, Japan has been notoriously reluctant to use its existing leverage over North Korea. There is, for instance, a ferry service between a North Korean port and the northern Japanese city of Niigata - a vital link for the hundreds of thousands of Korean residents of Japan who are loyal to the North.

These Korean expatriates also remit money to their relatives at home, an important source of hard currency for a regime that admits that missile sales are a vital export. And there is some trade, mostly in agricultural goods and seafood. Last year, for example, wholesalers in one Japanese port purchased nearly $2.5 million worth of a particular crab from North Korean fishermen, according to municipal authorities in Sakaiminato, on Japan's western coast.

Despite years of tension over the North's suspected nuclear-weapons program and other issues, Japan has not cut off these relationships.

Part of the reluctance is historical - a harsh Japanese action would remind people in both countries of Japan's colonization of the Korean peninsula before World War II and its mistreatment of Koreans during the war. Fear is another factor, since some Japanese worry that angering North Korea and its supporters here could prompt terrorist reprisals.

A third reason is diplomatic; the Japanese government perennially tries to restore civil relations with the North, without success. Cutting off the ferry link, cash remittances, or trade would ruin prospects for dialogue.

All of this disgusts Katsumi Sato, who has issued warnings about North Korea for years as head of the private Modern Korea Institute in Tokyo. "Japan has no guts to say or do anything, even when it is in danger itself," he says. South Korean National Assembly member Lee Dong Bok sees a "notable laxness" in Japan's attitude toward technology transfer and cash flows. "Japan is known to be a country from which a massive amount of foreign currencies are finding their way to North Korea."

At a press conference yesterday Keiichiro Asao, Yamamoto's ally on this issue and a fellow junior member of Japan's Upper House of parliament, said steps should be taken to restrict the flow of money to North Korea in addition to new export-control measures.

In May the two lawmakers inspected a semi-submersible North Korean vessel sunk by South Korea last December and recovered in March. Of the components used to assemble the vessel, approximately one-fifth were of Japanese origin, Yamamoto and Mr. Asao say. Its engines were American-made, they add.

The Japanese components included a depth-measurement device, a radar, and a global positioning system made by Furuno Electric Co., Ltd., a leading maker of high-tech goods for maritime use. The company supplies Japan's Self-Defense Forces as well as civilian sailors all over the world.

Furuno executive Akio Akamatsu says the three components are not sophisticated enough to appear on Japan's list of sensitive exports and are sold in many countries. In Japan all three would cost less than $10,000; they are at the low end of Furuno's product line. He says it is hard to imagine how additional regulation could stop North Korea from acquiring such goods, especially if third parties made the purchase. "If you go to a store near a port you'll see this equipment; it's easy for North Korea to get access," Mr. Akamatsu says.

He says the company used to trade directly with North Korean buyers and sold 200 or 300 devices over the past five years - a trade that was and is legal under Japanese law. But Akamatsu says his company has voluntarily cut off any sales to North Koreans or agents who intend to sell to North Korea.

Yamamoto and Asao say the government should be able to punish companies and traders that sell goods to dangerous countries if the sellers know the products could end up in military use. The also want to enable the government to put certain countries on a watch list and track what happens to products after they are exported. A North Korean defector they will not name told them that Japanese-made semiconductor chips are used in the North's missile program, the lawmakers say.

The core problem, says Yamamoto, is that Japan's export-control laws, while hewing to international regimes that cover trade in goods with military applications, lack a "national security consciousness." Takashi Funaki, a senior export official in the Ministry of International Trade and Industry, concedes that the rules aren't written with the idea of protecting Japan in particular.

But after the Taepo Dong, Yamamoto says, "people are thinking about national security seriously."

*Michael Baker contributed to this report from Seoul, South Korea.

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