Japan's government got word in 2014 that two men who disappeared in the late 1970s were alive in North Korea, but a senior official 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 signed off on the decision to put a lid on news 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, are living in Pyongyang.
North Korea had told Japan that both men were married and fathered children since arriving in the country and that they had no intention of returning.
The senior official decided that this was incompatible with Japan's demand for North Korea to return all abductees and that it would elicit a negative response from the Japanese public.
Kyodo News reached out to Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, who is in charge of Japan's efforts to resolve the abduction issue, for comment, but he declined, saying doing so could hinder the undertaking going forward.
Resolving past abductions by North Korea is one of the Abe administration's "top priorities," but efforts to secure the return of the victims have reached a standstill in recent years.
Under a key 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.
Tanaka disappeared after boarding a plane for Vienna at Narita airport in June 1978 when he was 28.
A man claiming to be a former North Korean agent said in a monthly magazine in 1996 that the owner of the ramen shop Tanaka worked at, also secretly an operative, lured him to the Austrian capital and had him taken away.
The Japanese government in 2005 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 around him 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, and the Japanese government has listed him as one of more than 800 people that may have been abducted by North Korea.