Chinese state media reported on Friday (18 May) that the PRC Embassy in Pyongyang has taken the lead on discussions with DPRK officials over releasing 29 fishermen who were seized and detained on 8 May. According to an unconfirmed report, some of the fishermen have already been released and returned to China, although neither their family members nor the owner of the commercial fishing trawlers have heard from the supposed returnees. AFP reports:
“Some of the detained vessels and crew have already returned to port,” the state-controlled Xinhua news agency said late Friday, without elaborating.
The foreign ministry was not immediately available for comment, and one of the owners of the boats that had been seized said he also had no information.
“I also saw the news online, but we haven’t met any of the fishermen,” the owner, Zhang Dechang, told AFP by telephone from the northeastern province of Liaoning, near China’s border with North Korea.
“I called some of their relatives, and they didn’t know either what the situation is. We still have to wait.”
Chinese state media previously reported that the men were fishing off the country’s northeast coast, in the waters between China and North Korea, when they were snatched.
The Xinhua report said Chinese embassy staff in the North Korean capital Pyongyang were negotiating the release of the rest of the fishermen.
The fishermen remaining in North Korean hands were “safe and sound” and had enough to eat and access to medical help, according to Xinhua.
Chinese fishermen regularly run into difficulties with the authorities of other countries as they fish in areas that are claimed by both China and its neighbours.
However, so far there has been no indication that the North Korean gunmen who seized the sailors were security forces from the isolated country — which counts China as its sole major ally.
Counsellor Jiang Yaxian told Xinhua that Ambassador Liu Hongcai and other Chinese diplomats have been working actively on the detention of the Chinese fishermen along with their vessels “through negotiation and close contact”, to fully ensure the Chinese crew’s personal safety and their legitimate rights and interests.
According to the DPRK side, the detained Chinese fishing crew are now in “sound health condition with sufficient food and healthcare”, and that “part of the detained vessels and crew have already been back to China.”
Jiang said that the Chinese Embassy in the DPRK will continue its efforts to ensure that the issue will be properly addressed as soon as possible.
On Thursday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said that China has been staying in close communication with the DPRK through relevant channels to push for a proper resolution to the issue at an early date.
China demands the DPRK ensure the safety and legitimate rights and interests of the Chinese fishermen, he said at a daily news briefing.
It was reported that three Chinese fishing boats and their crews were held in custody by the DPRK on May 8.
Initial reports claimed that the fishermen were captured by a group of DPRK and Chinese nationals. However, those reports may have misidentified operatives of a maritime unit under the Reconnaissance General Bureau who would be thoroughly trained in language and nonverbal behavior that made them seem (and sound) Chinese. Daily NK interviewed a former trainer in the Reconnaissance Bureau:
The captain of Liaodanyu No. 23527, which was fishing alongside the boats that were seized, testified that the North Korean vessel which took the Liaodanyu No. 23528 was a fast moving military speedboat, and that there were four to five people on board wearing blue uniforms and hats.
On this, Choi said, “Secretly entering international waters or those of another country for a brief spell and capturing a boat is the kind of special mission intrinsic to the maritime bases of the Special Bureau of Reconnaissance.”
“General Bureau maritime bases which conduct infiltration missions against South Korea exist both in the East and West Sea, and the West Sea base is at Nampo,” he went on. “The base has around ten combat speedboats disguised as mid-size fishing vessels, and they perform operations like seizing fishing boats and maritime infiltrations.”
A normal fishing vessel is equipped with a single engine; however, Choi said that the high-speed vessels of the type at the base have four Russian made M-400 engines. The average speed of the vessels is 45 knots, though they are able to reach 50 knots.
A person present at the time of the attack has testified that the group of captors included Chinese people; however, Choi believes that this probably means the operation was actually carried out by operatives from the General Bureau who are able to speak excellent Chinese. According to Choi, “The General Bureau’s West Sea unit taught staff Chinese to prepare for situations including fleeing into Chinese waters in the course of operations.” Operatives stationed at East Sea Base No.1 are required to speak excellent Japanese.
Therefore, Choi concludes that it is actually unlikely that reports of direct Chinese involvement in the operation are correct.
Similarly, Choi believes it is highly unlikely that the General Bureau of Reconnaissance suddenly decided upon the capture of Chinese trawlers as a way to earn money. He said, “They knew very well that capturing a Chinese trawler without the approval of the authorities would create a diplomatic problem, so I don’t believe they did it independently. While conniving with the authorities to demand monies, they are intending to express discontent at something.”