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Tensions rise between China, North Korea over boat held hostage

May 20, 2013|By Barbara Demick
  • North Korean soldiers watch the Chinese side of the border from the town of Simuiju.
North Korean soldiers watch the Chinese side of the border from the town… (Associated Press )

BEIJING -- A Chinese fishing boat was seized by armed North Koreans who are demanding a ransom of nearly $100,000 for the release of the ship and 16 Chinese crew members.

The Chinese Communist Party's Global Times newspaper suggested in Monday's editions that the capture of the boat might have been in retaliation for Chinese support of U.N. sanctions on North Korea.

The ship, known as Liaoning Ship No. 25222, was seized May 5 while fishing off the coast of the eastern city of Dalian, but the incident was not publicized due to ongoing negotiations with the captors.

The boat's owner, Yu Xuejun, who is based in Dalian, has been posting increasing desperate messages on a microblog account since Saturday. On Monday morning, he wrote that a deadline had been set for 5 p.m. Monday and 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. ... I fear our crew has been tortured. I can’t imagine what the North Koreans will do. Everybody please help us," Yu wrote.

In an earlier message, Yu described the North Koreans as armed and 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 envoy to Pyongyang, Jiang Yaxian, told the Chinese media that the Foreign Ministry was trying to help.

"Upon receiving the call, the Chinese Embassy promptly made representations asking the [North Korean] side to release the boat and the fishermen as soon as possible," Jiang told the New China News Agency.

The seizure of the vessel adds another complication to 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 U.N. Security Council sanctions.

The Global Times on Monday reported that the North Korean "kidnappers" were "highly likely from the North Korean army" and that they had expertly removed positioning and communication equipment from the boat.

"It's also possible that the nuclear state is taking revenge on China after the U.N. imposed a series of sanctions on it following its third nuclear test," Jin Qiangyi, director of the Asian Studies Center at Yanbian University, was quoted by the newspaper as saying.

In the past, 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 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 fishing boats.

Meanwhile, North Korea has continued with a series of provocative military moves. On Monday, it fired off another short-range missile from the east coast, the fifth in three days.

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