Two Japanese citizens arrested in China on suspicion of spying may have been collecting information about Chinese military activities and North Korea for the Public Security Intelligence Agency, a Japanese government source said Friday.
According to Japanese and Chinese diplomatic sources, the two men suggested that they had entered the country to collect information at the request of the Japanese intelligence agency, which is in charge of gathering and analyzing information on threats to national security and public safety.
The two individuals, detained in May, are civilians, the diplomatic sources said.
One, a 55-year-old man residing in Kanagawa Prefecture, is a North Korean defector and was detained near Dandong in Liaoning province, close to China’s border with North Korea, the government source said.
The other man, a 51-year-old resident of Aichi Prefecture, was detained near a military facility in Zhejiang province’s Pingyang County.
The Aichi man may have been involved in gathering intelligence on the Nanji Islands, where China is building large-scale military facilities. The Nanji Islands, some 300 km to the northwest of the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands, which China calls Diaoyu, are part of Pingyang County.
The Nanji Islands are closer to the Senkakus than Okinawa by about 100 km. China is believed to boosting its military capabilities on the islands to improve its readiness to respond to a potential military crises in the area. Beijing could also use such bolstered capabilities to strengthen its surveillance in the air defense identification zone it declared over part of the East China Sea in November 2013.
Apart from the two alleged spies, a man in his late 60s who lives in Hokkaido has also been detained by Chinese authorities, though the charges against him remain unclear.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said Wednesday that authorities arrested the two Japanese “on suspicion of carrying out espionage activities.” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, however, has denied that Japan dispatched spies to China.
A Public Security Intelligence Agency official declined to comment on the matter.
Intelligence experts said the two Japanese were probably not engaged in full-fledged spying activities, as the agency routinely requests civilians to collect information.
“The agency has been friendly with businessmen who go overseas, trying to get information from them,” said journalist Buntaro Kuroi. “By fostering relationships with such civilians over a long time, agency officials would often ask they check up on certain things, ‘if possible.'” But I suspect such (casual) requests do not involve clear instructions or exchange of money.”