North Korea Holds Chinese Fishing Boat For Ransom

China’s foreign ministry disclosed on Sunday that North Korea took over a Chinese fishing boat earlier this month and continues to hold its crew hostage, according to Chris Buckley of The New York Times:

The vessel’s owner, Yu Xuejun, called the Chinese Embassy in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, on May 10 to seek help, the Chinese said in a brief statement issued through Sina Weibo, the country’s Twitter-like microblog service. Mr. Yu was not on the boat when it was seized.

“The embassy immediately made representations to the consular affairs bureau of the North Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs, asking that release the vessel and the crew as soon as possible, and ensure the safety of the lives and property of the detained crew, as well as their legitimate rights,” the Chinese ministry statement said.

The Chinese media reports said the boat was seized on May 5, with 16 men onboard, and North Korean authorities demanded payment of 600,000 renminbi, equal to about $98,000, to release them and the vessel, apparently on the grounds that it was in waters claimed by North Korea. The deadline for payment was Sunday, The Beijing Times newspaper said.

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China’s state-run Global Times reported on Monday that those responsible were “highly likely from the North Korean army,” with one expert speculating that North Korea may be retaliating for sanctions imposed by the United Nations in March after the rogue state’s third nuclear test. But the Guardian’s Tania Branigan speculates that local North Korean forces took on the heist to make money. The boat’s owner received a call from North Korea claiming that his boat had entered North Korean waters, she reports, though he insists the boat had not left Chinese territory:

“This is not the first time it has happened and it won’t be the last,” said Cheng Xiaohe, an expert on Sino-North Korean relations at Renmin University.

North Korean forces and Chinese fishermen often played a cat-and-mouse game, with incursions over the line by both sides, he said. Other cases had not become public because boat owners simply paid up but this time the ransom appeared to be much higher than usual.

“This issue will complicate an already troubled relationship between the two countries but I don’t think the impact will be significant or lasting. I think with the Chinese government intervention it will be settled quickly,” Cheng said.

But he added: “The Chinese side needs to rein in fishermen to make sure they stay in Chinese waters and the DPRK also needs to impose discipline on local military forces.”

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For Foreign Policy, Isaac Stone Fish doubts that the kidnappers acted with the full backing of the North Korean military command:

But if the “pirates” were actually members of the North Korean military acting in concert with Pyongyang, why the laughably small ransom? Yu told a Chinese journalist that he can’t pay the “sky-high price” of $100,000 — that may be true, but the sticker price for international incidents is usually higher than that of a luxury car. (By comparison, in 2010, the average ransom demand from Somali pirates was $5.4 million.)

It’s not the first time this has happened. A year ago almost to the day, North Koreans abducted 29 Chinese fishermen; the identity of the North Koreans, or whether they were authorities or autonomous kidnappers, remains unknown. The fishermen were returned and relieved of all their possessions, in some cases even including their clothes and the pencils in their pocket. Is the North Korean army so starved of resources that it would steal writing utensils from Chinese fishermen?

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