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North Korean captors free Chinese fishing boat crew

The mysterious circumstances resemble those of an abduction a year ago.

May 21, 2013|By Don Lee and Barbara Demick
  • North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, second from left, and his wife, Ri Sol Ju, pay a visit to a children's camp at the foot of Mt. Myohyang in North Pyongan province.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, second from left, and his wife, Ri Sol Ju,… (KCNA via KNS, AFP/Getty…)

DALIAN, China — After being held for more than two weeks, a Chinese fishing vessel and its crew were released by North Korean captors, the boat’s owner said early Tuesday.

The release came less than two days after news of the seizure was publicized in Chinese media — and resembled the mysterious circumstances surrounding a similar two-week abduction of crew members on three Chinese fishing boats by North Koreans almost exactly a year ago.

North Koreans siphoned the fuel from the ship before releasing it, said Yu Xuejun, the owner of the Dalian-based fishing operation, in a microblog statement. Yu said he received a call from the ship’s captain at 3:50 a.m. Tuesday saying that the boat and all 16 Chinese crew members were returning home.

Yu noted that he did not have to pay the nearly $100,000 ransom that had been demanded, and he expressed gratitude to China’s Foreign Ministry.

North Korea has said nothing publicly about the seizure, and it wasn’t until Sunday, after Yu had sent out increasingly desperate distress messages on his microblog over the weekend, that Beijing revealed that the boat had been seized May 5. Yu called the Chinese Embassy for help May 10, China’s official news agency said.

Among fishermen in this historic seaport city, the danger of steering their boats near North Korean waters is well known. 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. Local fishermen interviewed Monday said it was possible that the Chinese vessel may have drifted near the border, although Yu said that his ship had been fishing in Chinese waters and that there was no legal reason for its seizure.

“I believe both sides have made mistakes,” said Cao Zhanyuan, 40, as he sat mending a fishing net late Monday afternoon in Long Wang Tang Port.

The incident had threatened to further complicate 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 at Yonsei University in Seoul. “It’s not about denuclearization.”

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.

“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.”

don.lee@latimes.com

barbara.demick@latimes.com

Lee reported from Dalian and Demick from Beijing

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