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Wednesday, Sept. 1, 1999
Maizuru in Pyongyang's sights?
MAIZURU, Kyoto Pref. -- At first glance, the town of Maizuru appears to be just another sleepy village on the Sea of Japan coast.
The streets are deserted after 6 p.m. and shops don't open until 11 a.m. Although 95,000 people live here, it feels as if there are only a couple hundred.
But the quiet atmosphere and languid pace belie the fact that Maizuru is home to the only major Maritime Self-Defense Force base in the region and only 850 km from North Korea.
It was likely in order to monitor activity at the base that a suspected North Korean spy vessel approached the area in late March before being chased away. And, given the town's proximity to North Korea and the presence of the base, it's not surprising that residents here are concerned Maizuru will be on the frontline in a clash with the Stalinist state.
"I think people in Maizuru are more anxious about the situation with North Korea than in other parts of Japan," said Ryoji Yamanaka, a Maizuru city official, adding that Pyongyang's launching of a missile in August 1998 plus the rogue ship incident in March have only added to those concerns.
Maizuru is geographically divided into two sections. One is the area surrounding JR Nishi Maizuru Station. Here, ships arrive from all over the world, including North Korea and Russia, for trade. The MSDF base lies near JR Higashi Maizuru Station and is separated from Nishi Maizuru by a series of hills.
"The Maizuru MSDF forces are responsible for defending the area between Akita and Shimane prefectures, nearly 1,600 km," said Adm. Satoshi Takemura, the base commander.
Stationed at Maizuru are the 3rd Escort Flotilla, which includes five destroyers. Among these are the Haruna and the Myoko, the two ships that chased the suspected North Korean spy boat in March. It was the 7,250-ton Myoko that fired on the boat, the first such action by a Japanese naval vessel since World War II.
In addition, the base includes a minesweeper flotilla, communications station, ammunition supply depot, counterintelligence unit and recruit training center.
Yamanaka said the city has agreed to pay for construction of a new helicopter landing pad, which will be completed in a couple of years. The helicopter pad will serve helicopters already assigned to ships at the base.
Although there is increased concern about security in the Sea of Japan, at present, ships from the base do not go out on patrol every day.
"General surveillance is handled by an EP-3 patrol plane, which monitors the region," said the admiral.
Asked about training to counter terrorist attacks, Takemura said MSDF personnel are trained in counterintelligence, but neither the base nor the MSDF in general has the specific types of antiterrorism training that other forces in other countries have, nor is there an equivalent of the U.S. Navy SEALS in Japan.
Some 3,000 MSDF personnel are stationed at Maizuru, making the MSDF the main business in town. "Nearly 10 percent of the town's population of 95,000 consists of MSDF personnel and their families," said MSDF spokesman Tetsuo Ichien.
That number could increase even more and could include forces from the U.S. Navy as well, if something happens on the Korean peninsula.
A U.S. Navy ship recently visited Maizuru. There are also reports that the U.S. wants to explore the possibility, in a regional emergency, of stationing ships at the base and an aircraft carrier at the port of Tsuruga in Fukui Prefecture.
Takemura said he was not aware of any plans or discussions by the U.S. Navy or Defense Agency to either increase the visits by U.S. warships or to use Tsuruga as an aircraft carrier base.
"The Maizuru base could, however, receive more visits from U.S. warships, depending on developments in the regional security situation," said Takemura.