• Staff Report, Kyodo


North Korea has informed Japan that Minoru Tanaka, a Hyogo Prefecture native who vanished in 1978, is living in Pyongyang with his wife and children, Kyodo News reported Friday, quoting an unnamed source in the Japanese government.

The government claims Tanaka was kidnapped by North Korean agents while staying in Europe.

Since 2014, North Korea has told Japan about Tanaka’s situation several times, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Pyongyang also reportedly told Tokyo that Tatsumitsu Kaneda, one of his coworkers at a noodle shop, is also living in Pyongyang with his wife and children.

Japanese officials were told that neither Tanaka nor Kaneda intends to return to Japan, according to Kyodo News.

The government has long suspected that Kaneda, who was 26 when he disappeared, was whisked away by North Korean agents. Pyongyang maintains that all issues related to the abduction issue have already been resolved.

Tanaka was 28 when he vanished. The government added him to the official list of 17 abductees in April 2005. Pyongyang had claimed it could not confirm whether he ever entered North Korea.

Tanaka’s case came to light in 1997 after a now-deceased man believed to be a spy for the North confessed that Tanaka was taken to North Korea via Vienna at the invitation of the noodle shop owner, who was also a spy for Pyongyang.

The last record of Tanaka’s existence was his departure from Narita Airport in June 1978. He has not been heard from since.

Japanese officials have not met with either man, and a senior Foreign Ministry official declined to comment.

Japan officially lists 17 citizens as having been kidnapped by North Korean agents and suspects the North’s involvement in many more abductions. Of the 17, five were repatriated in 2002.

The bizarre and tragic stories of Japan’s abductees have caught the attention of the public, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has pledged that resolving the abduction issue is one of his top priorities.

It was in 2014 when North Korea first told Japan that the two men had entered the country, the official said. It was before the two countries, which have never had diplomatic ties, reached an important agreement on the issue in Stockholm in May that year.

Under the deal, North Korea promised to conduct a comprehensive survey of all Japanese in its territory in return for the lifting of some of Tokyo’s unilateral sanctions on Pyongyang. The probe, however, yielded few results, and bilateral relations soon soured as North Korea restarted its nuclear and missile tests.

In 2016, North Korea disbanded a special committee tasked with looking into the whereabouts of missing Japanese.

Among leaders of major countries dealing with the North Korean nuclear issue, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is the only one having difficulty setting up a meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un since he began a string of diplomatic engagements in early 2018.

But Japan’s behind-the-scenes communications with North Korea have nevertheless continued. In October last year, a top Japanese intelligence official close to Abe had a secret meeting with North Korean officials in Mongolia, during which they discussed the abduction issue, sources with knowledge of the situation said earlier.

The Japanese government has publicly withheld information both about Tanaka’s entry into North Korea and the secret meeting.

Tanaka went missing in 1978 after departing from Narita for Vienna. According to a man believed to be a former North Korean agent, the proprietor of the ramen restaurant Tanaka worked at, also secretly an operative, helped lure him abroad to be abducted.

The following year, Kaneda disappeared after telling people around him that he would go to Tokyo to meet with Tanaka. Kaneda had received a letter in Tanaka’s name encouraging his former co-worker to join him in Austria. There are no records of Kaneda leaving the country.

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