Posted: 23 Apr 2014 08:55 AM PDT
U.S. President Barack Obama has arrived in Japan for the start of a four-nation tour of Asia, where he will try to convince allies that Washington is committed to its "rebalancing" in the Pacific.
Security concerns over China's territorial claims and North Korea's nuclear program will be a major focus of Mr. Obama's trip, which include stops in Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, and the Philippines.
The eight-day tour began in Tokyo with a meeting with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Japan is embroiled in a growing dispute with Beijing over a group of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea.
Ahead of his visit, Mr. Obama told Japan's Yomiuri newspaper the United States opposes "any unilateral attempts to undermine Japan's administration of these islands." He also stressed the islands fall under a treaty that requires the U.S. to defend Japan if attacked.
Mr. Obama will also try to make progress with Japan on the long-delayed Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade deal. But many say Japan's reluctance to drop tariffs on agricultural products makes chances of a breakthrough slim.
From Tokyo, President Obama will head to Seoul, where he will talk with South Korean President Park Geun-hye about how to deal with North Korea, which some believe is preparing to conduct another nuclear test.
The South said Tuesday it detected increased activity at North Korea's nuclear test site. Pyongyang warned last month it was preparing for a "new form" of nuclear test.
In Malaysia, Mr. Obama will hold talks and attend a state dinner with Prime Minister Najib Razak. He will be the first sitting U.S. president to visit Malaysia since Lyndon Johnson traveled there in 1966.
Mr. Obama's last stop will be the Philippines, which is also involved in a territorial standoff with China and has deepened its military cooperation with Washington as a result.
This is Mr. Obama's fifth visit to Asia since assuming office in 2009. He has promised to make the Pacific region a greater economic, diplomatic, and military priority for the United States.
Posted: 23 Apr 2014 08:19 AM PDT
Updated April 23, 2014 10:04 a.m. ET
SEOUL—Prosecutors expanded their investigation into the owner of the sunken South Korean passenger ferry on Wednesday as inspectors confirmed the cargo weight declared by the ship on its final voyage was three times the recommended maximum.
Officials from Chonghaejin Marine Co., the operator of the ferry, were banned from leaving the country as investigators raided the offices of the company, its affiliates, the residence of the firm's owner, as well as other companies he owns.
Prosecutors also collected documents from the Korean Register of Shipping, a government-commissioned inspector that conducted safety checks on the ship earlier this year. The expanded investigation is looking into whether regulations were enforced and inspections properly completed on the doomed vessel.
The ferry operator declared it was loaded with 3,608 tons of cargo when it left Incheon port on Tuesday last week, according to radio communication with the Korean Shipping Association. An official at Korean Register said on Wednesday that the maximum recommended weight of cargo for the "Sewol" was 987 tons.
Prosecutors have yet to identify the cause of a tragedy a week earlier that has left more than 300 people dead or missing, although the focus on Chonghaejin Marine has intensified in recent days.
The retrieval operation at the overturned ship continued on Wednesday as the official death toll rose to 150. Another 152 are missing. A spokesman for the coast guard said divers recovered more bodies from the ship's upper decks, most from a multibed economy cabin on the fourth deck. He said they found none in the ship's third-deck canteen, as they had expected.
In addition to looking at possible overloading, prosecutors are also looking into whether the ferry was safe for operation after a redesign early last year. Modifications included adding extra passenger cabins, raising the passenger capacity by more than 150 people, and increasing the weight of the ship by almost 240 tons, the Korean Register said.
The changes were approved and met safety standards, but prosecutors are unsure whether the ship's owner made additional changes afterward. It is also not clear if Chonghaejin Marine followed a request from inspectors to take measures to ensure the ship remained balanced in case of tilting.
Appearing in front of the media on Tuesday, detained crew members of the ship said that it had poor stability and problems with its steering.
"If the investigation proves that they have violated the laws, the ferry operator's license will be revoked. We're reviewing such a possibility," said a director at the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries.
Chonghaejin Marine has referred all inquiries to a lawyer, Son Byoung-gi.
"We'll announce our position after the current investigation is completed," Mr. Son said when asked for the company's position on the speculation that remodeling of the ship may have violated laws, or if passenger and cargo load were excessive.
"If there is any legal responsibility, the owners are willing to offer their wealth and assets to help compensate the victims," he added.
Speculation about possible lax enforcement of regulations has also turned a spotlight on the Korea Shipping Association, which is responsible for inspecting ships for safety ahead of travel, including whether cargo is stored correctly.
Experts have questioned whether the group, which is a lobby group for ferry and cargo boat operators, has a conflict of interest in being charged with enforcing regulations on its members.
Yun Jong-hwui, a professor at Korea Maritime and Ocean University, noted key government officials also move to the association, creating a disincentive for the maritime ministry to enforce stringent rules on former bosses.
"South Korean law and systems aren't undeveloped. It is a matter of upholding them" while separating the personal relationships from professional obligations, Mr. Yun said.
On Monday, President Park Geun-hye questioned whether the association's practice of recruiting senior maritime ministry officials had contributed to lax enforcement of regulations.
The Korea Shipping Association and maritime ministry declined to comment.
The chaotic last moments of the Sewol also have raised questions about whether the crew were able to deal with emergencies. Prosecutors have said that interviews with crew members have revealed that they hadn't received standard safety training.
Chonghaejin's audit report for last year showed the company spent 541,000 won ($521) on crew training, including evacuation drills, as it ran an operating loss of 785 million won in 2013—its worst in 10 years. In comparison, Daea Express Shipping Co., which runs four ferries on the one hour Incheon-Deokjuk island route, spent 11.14 million won on crew training last year.
Prosecutors on Wednesday morning raided the offices of Chonghaejin Marine and its affiliates, as well as the residence of the firm's owner, Yoo Byung-eun, and the companies he owns, said Kim Hoe-jong, a senior prosecutor at the Incheon District Prosecutor's Office.
Mr. Yoo served a four-year jail term in the early 1990s for fraud, according to Reuters and local media reports. Mr. Yoo couldn't be reached for comment.
Authorities have also issued a foreign travel ban for more than 50 Chonghaejin executives, shareholders and family owners of the company that operated the sunken ferry, according to prosecutors and police officers.
The sinking last week marks a second accident for Chonghaejin in less than a month. Another smaller ferry operated by the company, the Democracy 5, collided with a small fishing boat on March 28 on its way from Incheon to the island of Baengnyong in the Yellow Sea. The Ohamana, a ferryboat that plied the same Incheon-Jeju route as the Sewol, has also had engine trouble while at sea twice in the past few years.
—Kwanwoo Jun and Min Sun Lee contributed to this article.
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