After receiving word in 2014 that two Japanese men who had disappeared in the late 1970s were alive and living in North Korea, the Japanese government decided not to release the information due to fears that the public would react negatively, sources with knowledge of the matter said Thursday.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is said to have signed off on a decision by a senior official not to disclose that Minoru Tanaka, who the government officially lists as abducted by North Korean agents, and Tatsumitsu Kaneda, who is suspected of having also been taken, were found to have been living in Pyongyang.
North Korea is said to have told Japan that both men were married and had fathered children since arriving in the country, and that they had no intention of returning.
The senior official decided that the information was incompatible with Japan’s demand for North Korea to return all abductees, and that disclosing it would prompt a negative response from the public.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, who is responsible for Japan’s efforts to resolve the abduction issue, declined to comment on the matter, saying that doing so could hinder the undertaking going forward.
Resolving past abductions by North Korea has been described as one of the Abe administration’s “top priorities,” but efforts to secure the return of the victims have been at a standstill in recent years.
Under an agreement signed in May 2014 in Stockholm, Pyongyang agreed to conduct a comprehensive survey of Japanese abductees in North Korea in return for Tokyo lifting some of its sanctions against the country.
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 the missing Japanese nationals.
Tanaka disappeared after boarding a plane for Vienna at Narita Airport in June 1978. He was 28 at the time.
In a report published in a monthly magazine in 1996, a man claiming to be a former North Korean agent said that the owner of the ramen shop where Tanaka had worked, who was also secretly an operative, lured him to the Austrian capital and had him taken away.
In 2005, the Japanese government included Tanaka on the list of 17 people confirmed to have been abducted in the late 1970s and 1980s, five of whom were repatriated in 2002.
Around November 1979, Kaneda, an ethnic Korean who was working at the same ramen shop, disappeared after telling people that he was heading to Tokyo to meet with Tanaka, according to his acquaintances. That summer, he had received a letter from someone claiming to be Tanaka encouraging him to come to Austria.
There are no records of Kaneda, who was 26 at the time, leaving the country. The Japanese government has listed him as one of more than 800 people that are suspected to have been abducted by North Korea.