China asks for release of 16 fishermen believed held by North Koreans
Tensions rising between nations over Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programme
A North Korean soldier stands guard on the banks of Yalu River, near the North Korean town of Sinuiju, opposite the Chinese border city of Dandong. North Korea fired two short-range missiles on Monday. Photograph: Reuters
China has asked North Korea to release a Chinese fishing boat seized by armed North Koreans earlier this month and held for ransom, the latest sign of deteriorating relations between the two neighbours.
They have been allies for many years, but tensions have been rising steadily between North Korea and China over Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programme, which has put Beijing in a position of having to support sanctions against its ideological little brother.
China largely props up North Korea’s impoverished economy, providing nearly all of its fuel and most of what little trade it has. Even that is drying up, after leading Chinese banks froze out North Korea’s main foreign exchange bank in recent weeks, amid ongoing frustration over Pyongyang’s nuclear programme. Last weekend, North Korea fired a short-range missile from its east cost, its fourth in two days. Its reliance on China is growing since the closure of an industrial park jointly operated with South Korea that provided valuable hard currency.
The crew of 16 Chinese fishermen was kidnapped by armed North Koreans on May 5th, the boat’s owner, Yu Xuejun, who wasn’t on board, wrote on his microblog over the weekend.
Mr Yu said he had received eight calls from the kidnappers, who demanded a ransom of 600,000 yuan (€76,000) be paid to a company in Dandong, a town in China at the North Korean border. He said the vessel had been fishing in Chinese waters when the incident occurred. “My captain gave me the phone. His voice was trembling. Could feel he was very afraid,” Mr Yu wrote on his Tencent Weibo blog, which also had photos of the captain and 15 sailors. “The ship was equipped with GPS and Beidou positioning systems to make sure our fishermen know their accurate location every second,” said Mr Yu.
He believed the abductors were probably from the North Korean army because of the way they expertly removed the positioning systems and confiscated all communication devices after boarding the boat. Although the deadline for a ransom has passed, Mr Yu said he has received no more calls from North Korean side.
“I can’t afford the ransom as required. What worries me most is the personal safety of the 16 crew members,” said Mr Yu. He said the food on the boat, which could satisfy their needs for 20 days, was expected to run out very soon.
The Chinese government is under growing pressure to do more to protect its citizens overseas and Mr Yu stressed that it was foreign forces that had taken his boat and its crew.
A similar abduction by North Koreans of 29 Chinese fishermen a year ago prompted outrage, especially when the men said they had been beaten by their captors.
Jiang Yaxian, a diplomat at the Chinese embassy in North Korea told the Xinhua news agency that the mission was working on the detention issue, and had asked Pyongyang to ensure the safety and legitimate rights and interests of the fishermen.