TOKYO – Japanese government officials said Monday that they were trying to ensure the safety of a Japanese tourist whom North Korea said it had expelled after detaining him on unspecified charges.
The official Korean Central News Agency said late Sunday that Japanese tourist Tomoyuki Sugimoto had been "kept under control" for questioning about "his crime," without specifying what he had been accused of.
In a two-sentence report, the news agency said the authorities decided to "to leniently condone him" and expel him on the principle of humanitarianism.
Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters that Japan's government was doing its "utmost," but refused to give further details, citing the sensitivity of the issue.
Japan's government confirmed about two weeks ago that it was looking into reports that one of its citizens was being held in North Korea, but has not identified the person by name.
Japan's Kyodo News agency, citing a government source, said the person was believed to be a videographer in his 30s and may have been suspected of shooting video of a military facility while on a group tour to Nampo, a port city in western North Korea.
The government had sought his release through the North Korean Embassy in Beijing, Kyodo said. Japan does not have diplomatic relations with North Korea.
North Korea has also arrested other foreign nationals. Three Korean-Americans accused of anti-state activities and detained for more than a year were released and returned home in May with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo when the two sides were preparing for the June summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. American college student Otto Warmbier, who was arrested by North Korean authorities in January 2016 after being accused of stealing a propaganda poster and sentenced to 15 years in prison, died in June 2017, days after he was repatriated to the U.S. with severe brain damage.
Their arrests were widely seen as politically motivated and had compounded the dire state of relations over North Korea's nuclear weapons program.
If the Japanese man's release is confirmed, his repatriation will have come quicker than some of earlier cases. A Japanese correspondent for the Nikkei newspaper was detained in North Korea for more than two years after being taken into custody on spying charges in Pyongyang in December 1999. His release was seen as an attempt by North Korea to get Japan to make concessions ahead of their planned normalization talks.
Japan and North Korea have also had disputes over abductions of Japanese citizens decades ago. Japan says North Korea abducted at least 17 Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s to train agents in Japanese language and culture to spy on South Korea. Pyongyang has acknowledged abducting only 13 of them and said eight of them had died. Five others allowed by the North to visit Japan in 2002 stayed.
Associated Press writer Ken Moritsugu contributed to this report.
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