The number of Japanese people kidnapped by North Korea decades ago to train its spies may be far higher than previously thought, a report said Tuesday, citing a former Pyongyang agent.
Between 1965 and 1985, a team of around 120 North Korean troops repeatedly abducted young Japanese fishermen, the conservative Sankei Shimbun reported, citing a government interview with a formerly high ranking North Korean military official.
One of the missions involved the snatching of a man in his 30s from a boat in waters off Aomori prefecture in northern Japan, the report said. The vessel and its remaining four crew members were sunk, it said.
The issue of Japanese kidnapped by North Korea is a running sore in relations between the two countries.
Pyongyang admitted in 2002 its agents had snatched some young Japanese in what Tokyo said was an operation to train spies in Japanese language and customs.
Following a summit between then-prime minister Junichiro Koizumi and Kim Jong-Il, the late North Korean leader, five of those who were taken were allowed to return to Japan, along with their Korea-born offspring.
Pyongyang insisted at the time that all the others had died.
But suspicions persist in Japan that the isolated state has not come clean about the scope of its abductions and the issue colours all of Tokyo's dealings on North Korea.
Asked about the report, Keiji Furuya, the state minister in charge of the kidnap issue, declined to comment, saying he could not give specifics about what the government discovered.
Japanese officials say they believe many of the hostages are still alive, and say the kidnapping of at least 17 nationals during the 1970s and 1980s -- some of whom were as young as 13 -- were "acts of terrorism"
The Sankei report on Tuesday, which did not name the defector or say where the interview with him took place, comes as Japan has struck out alone to re-engage with North Korea.
Earlier this month a top aide to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Pyongyang in a move that appeared to take Washington and Seoul by surprise.
The US and South Korea have pushed for North Korea to re-join a six-party forum, which also involves Japan, China and Russia.
Those talks, which were derailed by nuclear and missile tests that began at the end of 2012, are aimed at curbing North Korea's atomic ambitions.
But despite the keen threat felt by Tokyo, which lies within easy reach of North Korean weaponry, the kidnapping issue trumps all others because of its domestic resonance.
Japan would not resume aid to even a completely de-fanged North Korea unless all abduction cases have been settled, Furuya said earlier this month.