David Gray / Reuters
A paramilitary policeman holds up his hand as he stands guard outside the main entrance to the North Korean embassy in central Beijing on Thursday. North Koreans holding three Chinese fishing boats and 29 sailors have demanded payment before they will release them, Chinese media reported on Thursday.
BEIJING – In what appears to be a rare public spat between longtime neighbors and allies, 29 Chinese sailors have been kidnapped in the Yellow Sea by North Koreans, according to Chinese media reports.
Three Chinese fishing ships were operating in waters between North Korea and China on May 8 when they were boarded, 29 crew members taken hostage and the vessels hijacked, the reports said late Wednesday.
The vessels reportedly were then taken to North Korean waters where they have remained since. One fisherman was said to have escaped.
One of the ships’ owners, Sun Caihui, said that the hijackers’ ship was a North Korean naval vessel and that some of the men were wearing uniforms of the Korean People’s Navy, according to a report on Netease, a popular Chinese web portal.
How Sun was able to determine whether the hijackers’ ship was a North Korean military vessel, much less whether the kidnappers were working on behalf of the North Korean government or were pirates working independently, remains unclear.
Immediately after the incident, the hijackers allegedly asked one of the Chinese captains to call Sun to tell him that the hijackers were demanding 1.2 million yuan ($190,000) in ransom for the three ships captured. Sun said he has not been in contact with his crew since that call, but new reports late Thursday suggested that the kidnappers are now seeking around 900,000 yuan ($140,000) for their release.
North Korea’s government has not made any public comment on the case. Likewise, China’s government would not publicly confirm any details about the reported incident.
China is North Korea’s key international ally, with Beijing having been Pyongyang’s main supplier of food aid and oil despite strict international sanctions over the reclusive country’s nuclear ambitions and rocket launches.
"China is maintaining close contact with North Korea through the relevant channels and we hope this problem will be appropriately solved as soon as possible," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told a daily briefing.
"We have also stated to North Korea that it should ensure the legitimate rights of Chinese ship personnel."
The owner of another ship involved, named Zhang Dechang, said that during a talk with his ship’s captain on May 9, he was assured that no direct threats had been made against the sailors themselves. However, in an article Thursday in the Chinese newspaper Global Times Zhang said he had received a call from the hijackers on Tuesday threatening to “dispose” of the ships and the fishermen if the ransom was not paid by May 17.
Conditions on the boats are said to be cramped and the fishermen reportedly have not been well looked after. Both Zhang and Sun said their ship captains have told him that they don’t have much to eat and that they’ve had little rest.
Sun said the incident has brought feelings of anger and helplessness. “Relatives of the sailors – parents, children, wives – came to us for their men, weeping,” he said, “We could do nothing.”
Anger among Chinese
The incident has raised the ire of China’s netizens, who have wondered why it has taken so long for news of the alleged hijacking to be released and why Beijing has reacted so gently on this matter.
On China’s Twitter-like service, Weibo, the issue was the top trending topic Thursday. “Has North Korea forgotten how China aided North Korea in the Korean War?” wrote one user. “Why are our fishermen always being arrested by foreigners, our waters always occupied by other countries? Don’t bully us, OK?”
Others Weibo users were more belligerent. “If they dare to execute hostages, we should immediately destroy them!” declared another.
In general, there appears to be a growing public frustration in China over the government’s seeming desire to not react to the incidents aggressively, perhaps best summed up by one Weibo user who wrote: “I wish the Chinese government could be stronger and stop chanting slogans like ‘harmony’ and ‘peace.’”
NBC News’ Horace Lu contributed to this report.
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