BEIJING -- Chinese fishing boat owners have accused the North Korea military of taking 29 Chinese fishermen on three boats captive and holding them for ransom.
The seizing of the fishing boats has opened up a rare public rift between North Korea and its most important ally. Chinese ship owners complain that the demands for ransom are tantamount to piracy, little different that what is happening off the coast of Somalia.
According to the ship owners, four boats from the port of Dalian were accosted at sea May 8 in what they claimed are Chinese waters, about 50 miles off of the Chinese coast. They were then forced at gunpoint to sail into North Korean waters, they said. One boat was released immediately for reasons that remain unclear, while the three other ship owners have been negotiating for the return of their vessels and crew. They said North Koreans were demanding up to $65,000 for the return of each ship.
"We are really worried about the lives of our crew," said one of the owners, Sun Caihui, in a telephone interview Thursday. He described the boat that accosted his ship as a small but well-armed military vessel.
"The kidnapper’s ship is definitely from the North Korean military," he said.
"They were wielding guns, so the fisherman didn’t dare resist," another ship owner, Zhang Dechang, was quoted as telling the Chinese newspaper Global Times. He said he had spoken to his captain by satellite telephone and was concerned about the conditions for the captured crew: “My captain told me that the fisherman were crammed into a tiny cabin with food supplies cut off."
The incident comes in the midst of a run of altercations off the Philippines, Japan, South Korea and Vietnam as Chinese boats have been accused of fishing in other nations’ waters. But the Chinese were particularly stung by the North Korean case because of the unusual ransom demands and because of their country’s long-standing patronage of its impoverished Communist ally.
"Is North Korea really so poor these days that they have to kidnap hard-working Chinese fisherman for ransom?" wrote one Chinese commentator on a microblog. Wrote another: “This evil is brought out by poverty. When you think about all the assistance China has provided, it makes you so sad."
In Beijing, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said Thursday that the government is working to protect the safety and the rights of the Chinese fishermen.
Beijing’s once-unequivocal support of its neighbor has been strained in recent months by a series of aggressive moves by North Korea under the helm of a new, untested leader, Kim Jong Un, who took over after the death of his father in December. Last month, North Korea conducted a long-range missile test, and it is reportedly planning its third test of a nuclear weapon. Satellite images show that North Korea has resumed construction of a nuclear reactor at its main site in Yongbyon.
--Barbara Demick. Tommy Yang in the Beijing bureau contributed to this report.