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Japanese man detained in N. Korea may return home soon

BEIJING/TOKYO (Kyodo) -- A Japanese man detained in North Korea may return home sometime soon, diplomatic sources said Monday, a day after Pyongyang's state-run media reported that the nation has decided to release him "on the principle of humanitarianism."

Tomoyuki Sugimoto, who visited North Korea as a tourist, has been "kept under control by a relevant institution to be inquired into his crime" against the country's laws, but it was "decided to leniently condone him," the Korean Central News Agency said in English on Sunday.

Although there is speculation that Sugimoto has already been deported and is now in China, a source close to North Korea in China did not comment on whether he was already released by North Korea.

Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, the government's top spokesman, declined to make specific comments on the matter at a press conference on Monday morning in Tokyo.

A man detained in North Korea earlier this month was thought to be a videographer in his 30s from Shiga Prefecture in central Japan, a Japanese government source said.

The man may have been suspected of shooting video footage of a military facility when he visited the western port city of Nampo with a tour group, the source said.

The man was visiting North Korea on a tour arranged by a China-based travel agency, the source said, adding that there is unconfirmed information about him having visited the country in the past.

"We will have to complete several procedures before his return to Japan. We have to support him as the government," said another source in Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's administration.

There have been concerns that the detention of the Japanese tourist could adversely affect Abe's effort to arrange a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, a meeting that he hopes will lead to progress on the issue of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s.

Foreign affairs experts say, however, that the tourist's release, should it be realized, is unlikely to pave the way for a summit as Pyongyang has stepped up criticism of Tokyo.

In recent months, North Korean official media have said the issue has been already "resolved," while calling on Tokyo to atone for its past military occupation and colonial rule of Korea.

Abe has said tackling the abduction issue is his "life's work."

The Japanese government has requested that all its citizens refrain from travelling to North Korea, as part of sanctions against Pyongyang, which has developed nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles in defiance of international warnings.

In 1999, a Japanese newspaper reporter was taken into custody in North Korea on spy charges and detained for about two years.

A Japanese trader was detained in 2003 on suspicion of smuggling drugs. It took around five years and three months before he was allowed to leave North Korea.

Japan and North Korea have no diplomatic ties.

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