BEIJING -- Chinese fishermen released by North Korea this week after nearly two weeks of captivity alleged that they were beaten, robbed and stripped and given starvation rations in a case that has opened up a rare public rift between the Communist allies.
"They used the back of their machine guns to hit us and also kicked us," said Wang Lijie, one of 29 fishermen in a telephone interview on Tuesday. "They stripped us of all our clothes after the beating, including sock and shoes. Most of us had only underwear left."
The North Koreans drained the three captured ships of fuel and also removed almost all the caught fish and the food and cooking oil stored for the journey. The fisherman were allowed out once or twice a day to cook small rations of grain, but were otherwise confined in a tiny storage room while their captors negotiated for ransom.
The hostage takers had initially demanded $65,000 per ship, according to the ships' owners, which apparently the Chinese refused to pay.
Although none of the Chinese crew were seriously injured, their accounts of mistreatment were reported in the Chinese media on Tuesday, triggering calls for an explanation from North Korea. “Crew treated ‘inhumanely,’ " read the headline Tuesday in the Global Times, a newspaper closely tied to China’s Communist Party.
Moreover, the fishermen returning home identified their captors as North Korean military.
"They didn't dock our ship at any of the North Korean ports. Our ship was just drifting in the ocean the whole time with North Korean soldiers watching and guarding us all the time," said Wang. "The North Korean soldiers also forced us to sign a document in Korean language which is supposed to be confessions of us fishing in North Korean waters. When we at first refused, they started to beat us again."
The boats were seized May 8 while fishing in what the ship owners claimed were Chinese territorial waters and were forced to sail toward North Korea. Although it is not the first time Chinese fishermen have claimed harassment by North Koreans, the incident is by far the most serious and raises questions about whether impoverished North Korea is descending into Somalia-style piracy.
The country is in a difficult transition period following the death of its leader, Kim Jong Il, in December and the elevation of his son, Kim Jong Un, who is in his late 20s.
"If North Korean governmental authorities are linked to this incident, we could suspect that the central government's control has weakened in the process of power shifting to Kim Jong Un," said Lee Dong-bok, senior associate at Center for Strategic and International Studies in Seoul.
China is North Korea’s main ally, the source of most of its fuel oil, investment capital and food aid, but Pyongyang has irritated its patron in recent months by ignoring Beijing’s calls for restraint in its weapons programs.
The Global Times, among other Chinese media, have demanded an investigation and prosecution of the latest incident.
"As lives are involved, the severity of the incident cannot be offset by national interests, including Sino-North Korean relations," the paper editorialized last week.
-- Barbara Demick and Tommy Yang in Beijing and Jung-yoon Choi in Seoul