China Probes Detention of Fishermen

As CDT reported earlier, 28 Chinese fishermen have been detained in North Korean waters and held for a ransom of $142,000. These fishermen were eventually released, but it is unclear whether or not the ransom was paid. The Los Angeles Times reports:

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 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.

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.

This incident comes amid tensions about Pyongyang’s nuclear activities and missile tests. Although China, Japan, and South Korea have agreed to work together on dealing with North Korea, China has seemed to launch it’s own investigation on the incident. The Wall Street Journal reports:

The report said the Koreans took whatever they could, and that one boat wasn’t enough to hold all of the booty and that a second boat was called in.

The fishermen were later taken ashore and given cigarettes before being forced at gunpoint to sign a document while they were filmed. According to the report, the contents of the document read : ”We entered DPRK waters and were working there illegally. The DPRK treated us in a friendly manner and all was normal during our stay there.”

The report makes the point that it is still unclear who actually detained the Chinese fishermen, with the crew insisting that the boats were boarded in the early morning and the fishermen were unable to see for sure. They did not say whether they had any other opportunities to identify the gunboat.

The North Korean embassy in Beijing declined to comment, but China Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei offered Beijing’s most extensive comments on the incident to date at a regular press briefing Tuesday afternoon. Here is what he said: “The Foreign Ministry attaches great importance to the incident. The Foreign Ministry and Chinese Embassy in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea maintained close communication with the DPRK in Beijing and Pyongyang, securing the release of the fishermen and fishing boats. The Chinese side urged the DPRK to observe agreements, including those on consular visits and notifications. China also demanded the DPRK ensure safety and humanitarian treatment of the fishermen. Based on our understanding, the Bureau of Fisheries is conducting investigation.”

Beijing is Pyongyang’s closest political ally, and this incident has sparked tension among netizens that call Pyongyang “ungrateful.” The BBC adds:

The allegations, which have been circulated widely on Chinese social media, caused anger among netizens, who slammed North Korea for its “ingratitude” and accused the Chinese authorities of being weak.

On Weibo, China’s Twitter-like microblogging platform, more than a million posts have been published on the incident since the detention was publicised last week.

“North Koreans, do you still deserve our help? Is this how you repay us?” said Kong Lingquan, a Shanghai-based event director.

“After such a shameful incident, why doesn’t our government demand an explanation from North Korea?” a Weibo user said.