China is urging North Korea to release a Chinese fishing boat whose owner says it was seized by gun-toting North Koreans earlier this month and held for ransom, in the latest irritant in relations between the allies.
Beijing is in “close communication” with Pyongyang over the incident, Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Hong Lei (洪磊) said at a regular press briefing.
“We have through the relevant channels called on the DPRK [Democratic Republic of Korea] to properly deal with this case, and protect the safety and legal rights of the detained fishermen,” he added.
The seizure of the boat adds 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.
The state-run Global Times yesterday quoted Jin Qiangyi (金強一), director of the Asian Studies Center at Yanbian University, as saying it was “possible that the nuclear state is taking revenge on China” after it signed on to UN sanctions against the North earlier this year.
The Chinese government is under intense pressure domestically to ensure the safety of citizens who venture abroad or out to sea to seek their livelihoods. Another abduction by North Koreans of Chinese fishermen about a year ago — along with allegations they were beaten — sparked furious criticism among citizens in China’s blogosphere.
Beijing’s “low-key” approach to such incidents in the past “has been taken advantage of by North Korea to infringe upon Chinese fishermen’s interests,” Jin said.
The boat’s owner, Yu Xuejun (于學君), first publicized the seizure on his microblog late on Saturday saying that North Koreans seized his boat on May 5 in Chinese waters and demanded a 600,000 yuan (US$100,000) ransom.
Yu, posting on a verified Tencent Weibo account, said he was asking for help from netizens and the ministry. His post was reposted and commented on more than 12,000 times. In another plea for help yesterday, Yu wrote that he received another call from “the North Korean side” on Sunday night, still demanding money.
“My captain gave me the phone, his voice was trembling, could feel he was very afraid, told me no later than 5pm today,” Yu wrote.
He said he suspected his crew had been mistreated.
Xinhua news agency, in its first report of the incident late on Sunday, said diplomats in Pyongyang had received a request for help from Yu as early as May 10 and that they had demanded at the time that North Korea release the boat.
Xinhua, citing Chinese embassy official Jiang Yaxian, said the embassy had contacted the North Korean Foreign Ministry’s Bureau of Consular Affairs, “asking [North Korea] to release the boat and the fishermen as soon as possible.”
The respected Southern Metropolis Daily reported earlier on Sunday that Yu received a call from North Korea saying his boat had entered North Korean waters — although he maintains it was in Chinese waters. Liu said he was not sure where the boat was at the time of the seizure.
Yu was quoted by the Southern Metropolis as saying the North Korean side had first asked for the ransom to be paid by noon on Sunday to a company in Dandong, a city in northeastern China on the North Korean border, or they would confiscate the boat and repatriate the crew.
China is North Korea’s economic lifeline, providing nearly all of its fuel and most of its trade. The North's economic dependence on China is rising, following a standoff with South Korea that effectively shut an industrial park that was an important source of hard currency.
Meanwhile, in a move likely to worsen tensions, the North fired two more short-range missiles into the East Sea (Sea of Japan) yesterday, defying warnings from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and South Korea after a flurry of similar tests at the weekend.
The latest firings were confirmed by the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff, which said it was unclear if the North was testing guided missiles or rockets from multiple launchers.
In a statement, Pyongyang reacted angrily to criticism that the missiles were a deliberate attempt to kick off a fresh cycle of tensions.
“Military training ... is the indisputable right of any sovereign nation,” the North Korean Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea said. “Viciously taking issue with our military’s rocket firing training ... is an unacceptable challenge and a wanton provocation.”
North Korea fired three short-range guided missiles coast on Saturday and another on Sunday.
This story has been amended since it was first published.