North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, second from left, and his wife, Ri Sol Ju,… (KCNA via KNS, AFP/Getty…)
DALIAN, China — Among fishermen in this historic seaport city, the danger of steering their boats near North Korean waters is well known. North Koreans took three Chinese ships and their crews hostage a year ago, and Chinese maritime officials have repeatedly warned fishing operators over the last several years that they would be slapped with heavy fines if they got too close.
Still, the Korean waters were highly attractive for their abundance of fish. And so it came as little surprise to fishermen like Cao Zhanyuan when he and many others in China learned Monday that a boat off the coast here had been seized by North Koreans this month.
"I believe both sides have made mistakes," said Cao, 40, as he sat mending a fishing net late Monday afternoon in Long Wang Tang Port.
North Korea has said nothing publicly about the seizure, and China has provided few details about the May 5 capture of the private fishing boat, which Beijing did not disclose until Sunday. The North Korean captors have demanded a ransom of nearly $100,000 for the release of the boat and 16 Chinese crew members, according to Chinese reports.
The ship's owner, Yu Xuejun, who is based in Dalian, called the Chinese Embassy for help May 10, China's official news agency said. Yu has been posting increasingly desperate messages on a microblog since Saturday. On Monday morning, he wrote that he had spoken by telephone to the captain.
"My captain called me. His voice was shaking. I can feel that he is really scared," Yu said. "I fear our crew has been tortured. I can't imagine what the North Koreans will do. Everybody please help us."
In an earlier message, Yu described the North Koreans as armed, with a very "aggressive attitude." He said that his ship had been fishing in Chinese waters and that there was no legal reason for its seizure.
China's Foreign Ministry spokesman gave a measured response Monday, urging North Korea to resolve the matter quickly and to safeguard the health and property of the fishermen.
The incident further complicates the already strained relationship between China and North Korea. Beijing has publicly rebuked its old communist ally over a nuclear test in February and other provocations, and voted along with the United States in support of United Nations Security Council sanctions. Bank of China, the country's largest state-owned bank, this month said that it had ceased dealings with the North Korean Foreign Trade Bank, an action seen as a sign of Beijing's growing frustration with Pyongyang.
The Chinese Communist Party's Global Times newspaper suggested Monday that the capture of the ship might have been in retaliation for Chinese support of the U.N. sanctions.
Although it wasn't certain that the seizure was orchestrated by Pyongyang, the Global Times reported that North Korean "kidnappers" were "highly likely from the North Korean army" and that they had expertly removed positioning and communication equipment from the ship.
Monday's news of the incident triggered another volley of anger at North Korea from China's large and vocal online community.
"The outrage is at its continued brazen behavior, particularly in showing disrespect to China," said John Delury, a modern Chinese history scholar who teaches at Yonsei University in Seoul. "It's not about denuclearization."
Shi Yinhong, professor of international relations at People's University in Beijing, said China-North Korea relations had already fallen to their lowest point in 10 years.
"This kind of event will further increase Chinese public anger and dissatisfaction," he said.
There have been numerous incidents in which Chinese fishing boats have been captured in the Bohai Sea, a northern inlet of the Yellow Sea, raising the possibility that financially desperate North Koreans are engaging in Somalia-style piracy to raise money.
About a year ago, three fishing boats with 29 crew members were held for two weeks. The crews were beaten and robbed of everything from pencils to clothing. The North Korean pirates also siphoned fuel from the boats. It wasn't clear whether a ransom was paid for the release of the crewmen.
Given that history, word of the latest seizure also sparked criticism that Beijing had been too soft in dealing with North Korea and had not acted aggressively to protect Chinese rights at sea.
"North Korean soldiers have done this numerous times," said a commentary from Beijing News. "We should not turn a blind eye to it."
There was a similar sentiment among fisherman in Dalian's Long Wang Tang Port, home to about 1,000 fishing boats.
Zhu Guangming, a 20-year veteran of the seas, said a fishing boat stood to be fined up to $80,000 by Chinese authorities if it went near North Korean waters. As a result, he and other fishing ship operators at this harbor say they don't take their vessels out far at all, leaving them with little income and some resentment.
"If you get close to the border, the Chinese fine you, and they say they won't rescue you," Zhu said. "The Chinese side is weak."
Lee reported from Dalian and Demick from Beijing.