North Korean pirates seize Chinese hostages, demand a ransom

A group of Chinese fishermen are said to be held hostage in North Korea, straining ties already frayed by North Korea's missile launches.

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The Chinese embassy in North Korea is "working on" securing the release of the crew of a Chinese fishing boat held by unidentified armed North Koreans, who are reportedly seeking a ransom.

The Associated Press reports that, according to the ship owner Yu Xuejun, the Liaoning-based boat was seized on May 5 by kidnappers demanding 600,000 yuan ($100,000) ransom for the 16 crew members' safe return.

In another plea for help on Monday, Yu wrote on his blog that he received another call from “the North Korean side” on Sunday night, still demanding money.

“My captain gave me the phone, his voice was trembling, could feel he was very afraid, told me no later than 5 p.m. today,” Yu wrote. He said he suspected his crew had been mistreated.

Mr. Yu said that the boat was seized in Chinese waters, although the kidnappers reportedly claimed it was in North Korean territory.

Yu told Agence France-Presse that he believes the kidnappers are part of the North Korean military, though he is not certain. He reported the incident to the Chinese government, but took to social media to publicize his crew's predicament after becoming frustrated with a lack of official action.

"It has almost been two weeks, but I haven't seen any results," he told AFP.

Chinese state news agency Xinhua published its first report on the matter on Sunday, writing that the Chinese embassy in North Korea "is working on the detention" and is "asking Pyongyang to ensure the safety and legitimate rights and interests of the fishermen."

The incident comes amid a tense situation on the Korean peninsula. North Korea in recent months has conducted several missile launches and nuclear tests, including six short-range rocket launches over the weekend and two more today. China, a traditional ally of North Korea, has been showing greater irritation with its neighbor, including supporting UN sanctions against Pyongyang over its most recent nuclear test.

AP writes that kidnappings of Chinese nationals by North Korean pirates are actually fairly common – including a similar event last year in which 29 fishermen were seized by armed North Koreans and later released.

“Whatever you call North Korea – rogue state or whatever – these kind of cases just keep happening,” said a Liaoning Maritime and Fishery Administration official who identified himself only by his surname, Liu. “We had such cases last year and the year before. There’s very little we can do to prevent them.”

The Global Times, a Chinese Communist Party newspaper, suggests that the current tension between Beijing and Pyongyang may result in a greater willingness for the Chinese to publicize the incidents – and that North Korea is deliberately targeting China.

Cui Zhiying, director of the Korean Peninsula Research Center at the Shanghai-based Tongji University, told the Global Times that as the relations between China and North Korea are gradually changing from traditional ideological allies to normal bilateral relations, these kinds of reports are being disclosed more frequently than before.

Jin Qiangyi, director of the Asian Studies Center at Yanbian University, told the Global Times Sunday that China has been inclined to deal with such disputes in a low-key manner, which has been taken advantage of by North Korea to infringe upon Chinese fishermen's interests.

"It's also possible that the nuclear state is taking revenge on China after the UN imposed  a series of sanctions on it following its third nuclear test," said Jin, stressing that the Chinese government should hold firm in safeguarding the safety of its citizens, otherwise, such incidents will reoccur in the future.

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