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Home > Media Reviews > News Review Last Updated: 14:53 03/09/2007
News Review #282: March 1, 2005

Japan to Restrict N Korean Ships

Reviewed by Hitoshi URABE

Japan to Restrict N Korean Ships
(By Jonathan Head) BBC


A well-conceived but ill-presented amendment of a law has come into effect in Japan.

The Law on Liability for Oil Pollution Damage has been amended, not only to enhance its grip on oil spillage but also to encompass disposal of shipwrecks. It used to be that if a ship is wrecked on the shores of Japan, all the shipowner had to do is to give up ownership of the vessel to be relieved of responsibilities over the damages it had caused, and unless the ship was covered by an insurance to the effect, the cost of cleaning the contamination, removal of the abandoned wreck, and all other incidental cost was borne by the residents' tax money often in the amounts of billions of yen (millions of dollars) each time. Incidentally, the most infamous in this regard was North Koreans, followed by Russians.

As of March 1, the shipowner of a vessel calling at any Japanese port must; have P&I (protection and indemnity) insurance, carry the relevant certificate on board, and report the status of insurance before entering a port. And the insurance must cover; damage caused by bunker oil pollution, and expenses of removing shipwreck. The need for such a rule to maintain equitableness is obvious in the modern world, and especially so for Japan, a country formed of islands with extensive marine traffic to support the strong economy. The logic is the same as the mandatory insurance in registering a car in a developed country.

So far so good. But the disarray starts when the change of the law is explained in relation to a specific regime, such as the article introduced above, and quite a number of other reports coming out of media.

It is true, as mentioned above, that North Koreans have been the main culprit in the shipwreck issue. One of the direct causes for the legislative amendment was an uninsured North Korean freighter running aground in December 2002, causing an oil spill, which forced local authorities to pay 500 million yen, close to 5 billion dollars, for the cleanup. According to a governmental survey conducted in 2003 -- at the time it was not illegal to operate uninsured ships -- only 2.5% of North Korean ships visiting Japan were insured, the worst figure followed by Russia's 14% and Cambodia's 25%. Still, the aim of the new law is to protect the safety and property of Japanese people from any foreigner's misbehavior.

Another point is that new law could, by definition, not function as a sanction against North Korea. Suppose, however unrealistic it may be, that North Korea suddenly transforms to a normal and legitimate regime, by which conceding to the demands and requirements by Japan. Even if that ever happens, the rules stipulated in the new law cannot be recalled or abolished. (In fact, under that hypothesis North Korea should be willing to get insurance for its ships.) As the new law is not a sanction, it could not -- and should not -- be redeemed for the reason of political relationships with foreign regimes.

Japan has been trading with North Koreans as long as legitimacy of each transaction could be confirmed. And the new law has no intention to stop the flow, it only requires it to be done more safely.

The newly amended law could not be construed as a sanction measure since there has been no deliberate decision made by those authorized to make such a decision, and it lacks substance of a sanction because the measure is irreversible irrespective of the attitudes and behaviors of North Korea. Feel at ease for those sympathetic toward North Korea, as Japan has not sanctioned them, and feel at ease for those hardliners as Japan still maintains the powers to initiate sanctions.

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