China is urging North Korea to release a Chinese fishing boat whose owner says it was seized by gun-toting North Koreans earlier this month and held for ransom, in the latest irritant in relations between the neighbouring allies.
“China is in close contact with North Korea over the Chinese ship being seized by North Korea,” said Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Hong Lei on Monday.
“China already filed a representation to North Korea through relevant channels, urging North Korea to properly handle the case as soon as possible, and to earnestly ensure the fishermen’s legal rights and safety for them and their property,” he added.
The seizure of the Liaoning-based boat adds to China’s frustration with North Korea over its recent tests of nuclear and rocket technologies in defiance of international efforts to curb the country’s nuclear ambitions.
At the same time, the Chinese government is under intense pressure domestically to ensure the safety of citizens who venture abroad or out to sea to seek their livelihoods.
The owner of the boat ,Yu Xuejun, first publicised its seizure on his microblog late on Saturday, saying that North Koreans seized it on May 5 in what he maintained were Chinese waters and that they had demanded a 600,000 yuan (US$100,000) ransom.
Yu, posting on a verified Tencent Weibo account, said he was asking for help from Internet users and China’s Foreign Ministry.
On Monday afternoon, he responded to questions from netizens in an apparent attempt to pressure the government into action, with comments like “We can only hope the country can defend our rights.”
The official Xinhua News Agency, in its first report of the incident late on Sunday, said diplomats in the North Korean capital had received a request for help from Yu as early as May 10, and that they had demanded at the time that North Korea release the boat.
In May of last year, a North Korean boat hijacked three Chinese boats with 29 fishermen on board, reportedly for a ransom of US$190,000.
Two weeks later, they were freed – some of them stripped of everything but their pants – and were widely quoted in Chinese media on their return as saying they had been beaten and starved.
China is North Korea’s economic lifeline, providing nearly all of its fuel and most of its trade.
North Korea’s economic dependence on China is rising, following a standoff with South Korea that effectively shut an industrial park that was an important source of hard currency.
Still, Beijing has had difficulty controlling its neighbour, and early this year began joining Western nations in moves to punish Pyongyang with economic sanctions.
“From China’s point of view, we must send a strong signal. This strong signal has to be that we firmly oppose all that has happened in the past few months,” said Wang Junsheng, professor of Korean studies at the government-backed Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
“When there comes the occasion to support North Korea, we must support it. I always believe we shouldn’t take any extreme approach or being too emotional when dealing with North Korea.”
Xinhua, citing a Chinese Embassy official, said the embassy had contacted the North Korean Foreign Ministry’s Bureau of Consular Affairs, asking North Korea to release the boat and the fishermen as soon as possible.
A Chinese fishery official said it was not clear where the boat was at the time of the seizure, but the owner said it was in Chinese waters.
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