North Koreans holding Chinese boat for ransom

Ng Han Guan/AP - The capture of a Chinese fishing boat in early May could add to a diplomatic rift between allies. Earlier this month, the state-run Bank of China suspended transactions with the North Korea Foreign Trade Bank.

BEIJING — Armed North Koreans are holding a Chinese fishing boat and its crew for ransom despite the protests of Chinese officials, the boat’s owner said Monday.

The boat’s seizure — which occurred early this month but was revealed by Chinese officials only Sunday night — is the latest dust-up between North Korea and China, which Pyongyang has long relied on to prop up its economy and defend it from international censure efforts by the United States and others.

A giant crane (L) that will lift up the sunken 'Sewol' ferry is silhouetted against the sunset in Jindo on April 24, 2014. Furious relatives of missing victims from South Korea's ferry disaster attacked a top coastguard official accusing him of lying about efforts to retrieve bodies still trapped in the submerged vessel. AFP PHOTO / Nicolas ASFOURINICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP/Getty Images

The giant crane in the background will lift the sunken South Korean ferry "Sewol."

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The vessel’s owner, Yu Xuejun, was not on board when the boat was seized. He has posted increasingly desperate messages about the situation on his microblog in the past two days. In the latest post Monday morning, Yu described a call he received from North Koreans, who demanded ransom and then handed the phone to his boat’s captain.

“His voice was trembling. I could feel he was very afraid,” Yu wrote about his captain. “I suspected that my crew has been mistreated. I can’t imagine what North Korea side could do.”

Chinese officials at the embassy in Pyongyang have asked North Korea to release the vessel and crew and ensure their safety, China said in a statement posted late Sunday on the Foreign Ministry’s official microblog.

The statement was the first public acknowledgment by China that the boat had been taken.

Beijing has shown increasing signs of frustration with North Korea in recent months, ever since the renegade country ignored China’s pleas not to carry out a recent nuclear test.

Sensing an opening amid Chinese frustrations, the Obama administration is trying to push Beijing to take a much stronger stance against North Korea than it has in the past.

Chinese officials, who value stability above all else, are unlikely to abandon North Korea anytime soon. But state-run newspapers in China have increasingly published stories questioning the upside of China’s ties with Pyongyang. And earlier this month, the state-run Bank of China suspended transactions with the North Korea Foreign Trade Bank, in what appeared to be a calculated expression of China’s unhappiness.

Seizures of Chinese fishing boats have been a problem in the past. In May last year, North Koreans seized three Chinese boats and held 29 crew members hostage for two weeks. On their release, crew members described being beaten and starved, with some stripped of everything including their clothing.

An article in the Southern Metropolis Daily, one of China’s most respected newspapers, quoted unnamed police officials who said North Koreans had seized at least three other Chinese vessels this year, demanding almost $50,000 in ransom in one case. It is unclear whether the seizures may be an indication of financial desperation among some North Koreans.

Yu, the boat owner, did not respond to attempts on Monday to reach him. But in online posts, he said the North Koreans have demanded almost $100,000 for his boat and crew to be released. In a post on Saturday, Yu described the North Koreans boarding the boat armed with guns, and said the ones he talked to by phone were “rude and unreasonable.”

China’s government-run Xinhua news agency said Chinese officials had demanded North Korea release the boat as long ago as May 10, when Yu first contacted them for help.

Li Qi in Beijing contributed to this report.

 
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