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SEOUL – North Korea appears likely to use a ferry to try to attract foreign tourists, a source familiar with the issue said Friday, in what could be an attempt to earn much-needed hard currency.

SEOUL – North Korea appears likely to use a ferry to try to attract foreign tourists, a source familiar with the issue said Friday, in what could be an attempt to earn much-needed hard currency.

For decades, the Mankyongbong-92 served as the only shuttle between North Korea and Japan, which have no diplomatic relations, and was mostly used by pro-North Korean residents in Japan.

The 9,700-ton ship was later used to transport cargoes before Tokyo blocked its entry as part of economic sanctions over Pyongyang’s missile and nuclear tests in 2006.

The ferry has also been suspected of being used for trafficking drugs, counterfeit money and other contraband goods.

North Korea is now preparing to use the vessel as a cruise ship for Chinese and other foreign businessmen during an upcoming international fair in Rason, the country’s special economic zone near China and Russia, the source said.

The North plans to use the ship to take the businessmen on a sightseeing trip in waters off the economic zone at the end of the international fair later this month.

The move is widely seen as the North’s attempt to use the ship for its tourism project.

“It is meaningful in that the Mankyongbong-92 would set sail as a cruise ship for the first time,” said Cho Bong-hyun, a researcher at the IBK Economic Research Institute, noting the North seems to be revitalizing tourism in the economic zone and attempting to attract Chinese tourists to earn hard currency.

The North designated Rason as a special economic zone in 1991 and has since striven to develop it into a regional transportation hub, though no major progress has been made.

In June, North Korea and China broke ground on a joint project to develop Rason as an economic and trade zone.

The North’s move to attract foreign tourists comes amid a dispute with South Korea over their stalled joint tour program at Mount Kumgang, a scenic resort on the North’s east coast.

North Korea has threatened to dispose of South Korean assets in the coming weeks unless South Korean investors either join the North’s new international tour program or lease, transfer or sell their assets during the period.

Last week, North Korea signed a deal with a New York-based company for tours to the resort, according to the company president.