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Chinese fishermen held by North Korea released but questions linger

Ahn Young-Joon/AP

Three Chinese fishing ships that were hijacked by North Koreans on May 8th in the Yellow Sea were returned to China with their crews on Monday.

BEIJING – All 29 Chinese fishermen held for almost two weeks by a North Korean crew were released and returned home on Monday, ending a hostage crisis that had outraged many in China and strained relations between the normally close friends.

China's state-run Xinhua News quoted an official at the Chinese Embassy in Pyongyang as saying that they had been informed that the three fishing vessels detained by the North Korean coast guard on May 8 were on their way back to China.

The sailors were in good health "with sufficient food and healthcare" after 13 days in North Korean waters, Xinhua quoted the official as saying.

The official's statement runs counter to reports by owners of two of the ships captured in the Yellow Sea who said that the crews had been given little to eat and had very little rest since the boats were taken.

The incident came as a surprise because China is North Korea's closest ally, and most important source of food aid and gasoline despite international sanctions meant to punish the country for its nuclear program and rocket launches.

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Questions shrouded the affair even as the sailors were set free.

Xinhua and other state media did not report whether a ransom had been paid, although it was earlier reported that the captors had demanded 900,000 yuan ($140,000) in exchange for the release of the vessels and their crew.

It also was not clear whether the North Koreans involved in the kidnapping and reported ransom negotiations were working on behalf of the North Korean government or alone.

Fishermen who operate in the waters where the boats were taken told the Chinese newspaper Global Times about previous incidents.

"The North Korean coast guards took almost everything, even pencils and clothes,” the newspaper quoted one fishermen as saying about a previous robbery. “They also pumped the fuel out of seized boats, leaving just enough for the journey home."

Even as it tried to cover the day’s news, the Global Times appeared to contradict its own reports.

While a news story reported that the latest kidnapping wasn’t the first incident involving North Korea’s coast guard, a Monday editorial in the same paper refuted the fisherman’s story.

"Currently there are rumors about misbehavior from North Koreans in the border areas between the two countries [and that] China does not seem to be taking a tough attitude toward them," the editorial stated. “Both should take effective measures to eliminate such rumors.”

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But, right after news of this most recent incident broke in early May, Chinese officials ordered hundreds of fishing boats in the area to restrict their operations to 50 miles within China’s territorial waters. 

While the recent hijacking prompted an outraged response online and in China’s highly-controlled state media, on Monday journalists seemed to have reverted to a friendlier attitude, working overtime to dampen anger they had generated and fueled.

For example, the same Global Times editorial urged China to work on improving relations between China and North Korea.

"The case should be a turning point for China in its handling of border disputes between China and North Korea,” the editorial said optimistically. “China and North Korea have a solid geographic basis for their friendship [and] both attach strategic importance to this friendship.”

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