A Chinese boat and 16 fishermen seized for ransom by armed North Koreans two weeks ago were released yesterday, easing the latest irritant in relations between the neighboring allies.
Owner Yu Xuejun (于學君), who was not aboard the boat when it was seized on May 5, wrote on his verified microblog that his captain called him at 3:50am to say the crew and boat were set free and that they were on their way home. He told the state-run Global Times newspaper all of the crewmembers were alright.
Yu, who had reported the seizure to Chinese authorities earlier, began publicizing the incident over the weekend as a deadline for a 600,000 yuan (US$100,000) ransom drew near. Chinese state media then began reporting on the incident, saying China was demanding that North Korea release the men.
Yu said on his microblog yesterday that he had been unable to pay any ransom, and he thanked the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs for negotiating on behalf of his boat and crew.
Yu’s pleas for help and fears that his crew had been mistreated were forwarded thousands of times by netizens and a high-ranking Chinese military officer, Major General Luo Yuan (羅援), wrote on Sina Weibo of his fury at the detention.
“North Korea has gone too far! Even if you are short of money, you can’t grab people across the border and blackmail,” wrote Luo, who has more than 300,000 followers.
The seizure had added to China’s frustration with North Korea over its recent tests of nuclear and rocket technologies in defiance of international efforts to curb the country’s nuclear ambitions. At the same time, the Chinese government has been under intense pressure to protect Chinese who venture abroad and out to sea for their livelihoods.
Foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei (洪磊) said China wanted North Korea to investigate the incident.
“We hope that the North Korea side can launch a full investigation into this incident, give an explanation to the Chinese side and also take effective measures to prevent a recurrence,” Hong told reporters in Beijing.
“The relevant boat has rejoined the other Chinese fishing boats at sea,” he added.
An expert on North Korea at the Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences said he doubted the North Korean government had any knowledge of the incident when it happened.
“This incident is purely about a lawless act by the North Korean border police to blackmail our fishermen,” said Lu Chao (呂超), adding that such things frequently happen to Chinese fishermen working near the border waters.
“Sometimes, if the amount they are asking for isn’t too high, the boat owner would just pay it,” he said.
This time, it might be related to spring food shortages, “so they are asking for a huge ransom,” he said.
Additional reporting by Reuters