For sail: N.Korea wants cash for Chinese fishing boats

Reuters / Handout
North Korean gunboats have reportedly seized three Chinese fishing boats along with their crews, totaling 29 men. The captors have requested almost $200,000 for their release.

­The incident happened in the border area of Yellow Sea on May 8, according to a Beijing News report.

After taking the boats into Korean territory, the Koreans demanded payment of 1.2 million yuan (US$189,800) by May 12, threatening to sink the vessels, owner Zhang Dechang told the newspaper. The price was later cut down to 900,000 yuan and the deadline for what Zhang called “ransom” pushed back to Thursday.

The 29 people who were manning the boats at the time of their capture are still on board, one of the sailors told his boss in a telephone conversation.

The Chinese government would not comment on the reported incident. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said it is in “close contact with North Korea through the relevant channels” and that the problem “will be appropriately solved as soon as possible.”

It is not clear whether demanding money for the boats was sanctioned by Pyongyang or was a local initiative.

The scarcity of information from the Korean side and overall confusion resulted in Chinese media speculations that the captors of the boats may be some freebooting individuals rather than proper border guards. Some reports said the Chinese sailors’ lives were at stake, as the kidnappers threatened to kill them unless the money is paid.

Border conflicts between North Korea and China going public is rare, but not unheard of. For example, in June 2010 Korean border guards opened fire at alleged Chinese smugglers, killing four people.

The incident resulted in a diplomatic row between Pyongyang and its key economic and political backer Beijing. China is a major supplier of food and fuel aid to North Korea, which remains in virtual economic isolation.