By Michael Ardaiolo
Three Chinese fishing boats were allegedly seized by a North Korean ship in Chinese waters last week. The unidentified hijackers are demanding a ransom of RMB1.2 million. If that sum is not handed over by the end of today, they threatened to “dispose” of the captives.
The fishing boats all set off from a port in Dalian. According to the the owner of one of the seized ships, Zhang Dechang, they were captured on May 8th by a North Korean boat. Communications were cut until the owners of the seized vessels were contacted. The hijackers demanded RMB400,000 per ship with the agreement the 29 crewmen would be released on May 12th. The captors, however, failed to show up at the appointed meeting place. A new deadline was set for May 17th, and this time the kidnapped crewmen’s lives were on the line.
The Beijing News is reporting that the vessel responsible for the hijack was a “small gunboat.” They also quote a witness who says that there were four or five armed men dressed in blue uniforms and hats aboard: “小艇上四五个人，穿着蓝色的制服，头戴蓝色帽子，’直接上了驾驶舱.’ ”
The Global Times talked with one of the boat owners, but they quote a smaller sum being demanded than what other news outlets are reporting:
“They were wielding guns, so the fishermen didn’t dare resist. My captain told me that the fishermen were crammed into a tiny cabin with food supplies cut off. The captors are demanding 300,000 yuan in ransom ($47,457.90) for each boat, but we do not have that much money. We hope related departments can help us free the crew,” Zhang said.
The case has made its way through the ranks of Chinese authorities during the last week. The Foreign Ministry is now involved, and, according to The Global Times, “relevant departments are verifying the incident, which is supposed to be a fishery case, and will try to properly resolve the issue as early as possible and guarantee the Chinese nationals’ safety and rights.”
Another report states that the Foreign Ministry is also in close communication with North Korean authorities, but it does not elaborate further.
Are the DPRK authorities discussing how to jointly resolve the case? Or are these negotiations being held?
A staff officer from Dailan told The Global Times that provincial authorities moved into action after they were informed of the situation:
She said the captors had earlier agreed to release the crewmen but failed to show up at an appointed location on Saturday, and that she was not clear if the captors are with North Korean authorities or just a group of kidnappers.
With current circumstances in mind, it is hard to believe that a group of rebel North Korean citizens could capture/build/occupy-as-a-non-military-entity a gunboat. Furthermore, if these are rebel DPRK citizens-turned-pirates, returning to North Korean territory with or without hostages seems like an extremely poor decision.
Would North Korea really try to extort money using such crass methods with its one-and-only ally though? It is almost as nonsensical.
Could this be an elaborate scam set up by the boat owners?
With such scant verified information, anything seems possible. Stay tuned.
Reuters is reporting that it is indeed North Korean officials who are demanding the ransom:
China has been quietly pressing North Korea to scrap plans for a third nuclear test, sources with knowledge of closed-door talks between the countries have told Reuters.
Pyongyang has sought to shore up ties with Beijing through frequent visits and praise of their friendship, but the North can also be resentful about what it sees as infringements of its territory, and Chinese dominance of relations.
It was unclear whether the seizure of the boats was authorized by the North Korean government, or was the initiative of local officials.