BEIJING — North Korea has released 29 captured Chinese fishermen and three fishing vessels, putting an end to a 13-day ordeal that raised questions about the stability of the Pyongyang regime.
The fishermen returned to the Chinese port of Dalian on Monday morning, the New China News Agency reported.
Chinese media suggested that Beijing did not pay a ransom for the boats. The news agency report credited China's ambassador to Pyongyang, Liu Hongcai, with securing the release through "negotiation and close contact" with the North Korean government.
The boats were stopped May 8 while fishing in what the Chinese boat owners claimed were Chinese waters, and were forced at gunpoint to sail toward North Korea.
The release of the boats does little, however, to clear up questions about whether impoverished North Koreans are engaging in Somalia-style piracy to raise money. Following the death of leader Kim Jong Il in December, North Korea elevated his 28-year-old son, Kim Jong Un, to replace him, and some believe the transition has not gone smoothly.
"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 shift to Kim Jong Un," said Lee Dong-bok, senior associate at Center for Strategic and International Studies in Seoul.
Last week, Sun Caihui, the owner of one of the fishing boats, described the vessel that captured his as a small, heavily armed military vessel. "The kidnappers' ship is definitely from the North Korea military," he said.
China is North Korea’s main ally and 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.
Chinese fishery officials were quoted Monday as demanding an investigation into who in North Korea was behind the seizure of the boats. The state-run Global Times newspaper said hundreds of Chinese fishing vessels had been ordered to retreat westward to avoid another incident.
One official told the newspaper that there had been other incidents in which the North Korean coast guard had stolen from Chinese ships.
"The North Korean coast guards took almost everything, even pencils and clothes. They also pumped the fuel out of seized boats, leaving just enough for the journey home," a local boat owner was quoted telling the newspaper.
— Barbara Demick in Beijing and Jung-yoon Choi in Seoul