TOKYO (AP) — A Japanese man released by North Korea after being accused of an unspecified crime arrived back in Japan on Tuesday, officials and reports said.
Tomoyuki Sugimoto, who was arrested in early August, had been in North Korean custody during an investigation into the alleged crime. The North’s official Korean Central News Agency said Sunday that the country decided to be lenient and expel him for humanitarian reasons.
Reports said Sugimoto arrived in Tokyo on Tuesday night on a flight from Beijing. A crowd of reporters waiting in the arrival area was unable to see him, apparently because he was escorted out through a different exit.
Without mentioning Sugimoto by name, Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono confirmed that a Japanese man held by North Korea had been in Beijing on Tuesday and that officials planned to interview him. Kono declined to give details.
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Kyodo News said Sugimoto confirmed his identity to its reporters who were on the same Air Koryo flight out of Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital. NHK television quoted a Japanese diplomat as confirming the man’s identity and describing his health as “not bad.”
Sugimoto, believed to be a videographer, was arrested in North Korea’s western port city of Nampo, where he may have been suspected of filming a military facility, according to earlier reports. Kyodo, quoting an unidentified Japanese government official, said Sugimoto was on a North Korea tour arranged by a China-based travel agent.
The Japanese government reportedly sought his release through the North Korean Embassy in Beijing. Japan does not have diplomatic relations with North Korea.
Sugimoto was escorted by North Korean authorities to the Pyongyang airport on Tuesday and arrived for his departing flight, carrying one bag, just before the gate closed, Kyodo reported. He was seated in economy class and an official of state-run Air Koryo sat in the row behind him and watched over him, Kyodo said.
He was silent during the trip except for asking a Kyodo reporter’s identity before boarding the flight, the news agency said.
Japan’s foreign minister on Tuesday repeated a government request that Japanese citizens avoid travel to North Korea.
Sugimoto’s release came far sooner than in previous cases, and some experts said it might be a message from North Korea that it is open to a resumption of dialogue with Japan on pending issues such as the abductions of Japanese citizens decades ago and Japanese compensation for its past colonial rule. Tourism, which is not subject to U.N. sanctions, is also a key North Korean source of foreign currency.
In December 1999, a Japanese correspondent for the Nikkei newspaper was detained in North Korea for more than two years on spying charges.
North Korea has also recently arrested other foreign nationals. Three Korean-Americans accused of anti-state activities who were detained for more than a year were released and returned home in May. American college student Otto Warmbier, accused of stealing a North Korean propaganda poster and sentenced to 15 years in prison, died days after he was repatriated to the U.S. in 2017 with severe brain damage.
Their arrests had compounded the dire state of relations over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
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