North Korea Leadership Watch

Research and Analysis on the DPRK Leadership

Captured Chinese Fishermen Return Home, Investigation Begins

Sok Islet, Kwail County, South Hwanghae Province. According to Chinese media, the 28 or 29 fishermen detained in the DPRK from 8 to 21 May 2012 were held here (Photo: Google image)

On the morning of 21 May (Monday) three Chinese commercial fishing trawlers and their 29 crew members, captured and detained by DPRK forces on 8 May, arrived in their home country through the port in Dalian.  With the fishermen’s return, accounts about their detention have emerged in Chinese media.  Global Times reports:

“Before they released us, they brought us ashore and gave each of us a pack of cigarettes. Then they pointed their guns at our heads, forcing us to write a confession saying that we entered North Korean waters illegally and they had treated us very well,” Yuan Xiwen, one of the fishermen, told the Global Times.

Zhu Chuang, one of the captains of the three boats, said the abductors only gave each boat half a bag of rice before ordering them to leave.

“They took everything onboard, including communication devices and our clothes, leaving some of us only with underwear. Fortunately, we could still use the Beidou for guidance,” Zhu told the Global Times, referring to China’s indigenous satellite navigation system, a rival to the GPS.

The three boats arrived in Dalian at around 6:35 am Monday after being released Sunday night. The fishermen were then sent to a local hospital for medical checks.

The fishermen told the Global Times that the three boats were seized one after another by a North Korean gunboat on May 8 while working in the Yellow Sea.

“The gunboat approached us, and six or seven armed North Koreans boarded our ship. They locked us up in a small cabinet we use for storing waste. One of the captors served as a translator, but I do not think he was of Chinese origin,” Zhu recalled.

The fishermen told Hong Kong-based Phoenix TV that the abductors had treated them “inhumanely,” and had beaten them with wooden sticks. One of the boat owners said no ransom had been paid.

“They did not allow us to talk, and would beat our spine and head if we made any sound. We had one, sometimes two meals a day, of only rice and porridge,” said Wang Zhiguo, one of the crew members.

“We could not properly sit down or stand in the tiny cabin,” Wang told the Global Times.

According to People’s Daily, three of the fishermen felt dizzy after their return, and another three had obvious bruises on their bodies.

Returned Chinese fishermen take the vehicle to go to hospital for medical check in Dalian, northeast China’s Liaoning Province, May 21, 2012. A total of 29 Chinese fishermen and their three fishing boats returned to Dalian on Monday morning, following 13 days of detention by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). (Xinhua/Liu Debin)

The Chinese government announced that relevant authorities had begun an investigation into the seizure of the fishing trawlers and crew.  South China Morning Post reports:

In announcing the investigation, ministry spokesman Hong Lei said the government was taking the incident seriously.

Some of the 28 fishermen aboard three boats taken on May 8 said armed North Koreans, dressed in army uniforms, had falsified the co-ordinates of their ship during the capture, to indicate that it took place in North Korean waters rather than Chinese waters.

The Chinese boat captains also said they were forced to admit that they entered North Korean waters unlawfully.

Wang Lijie, captain of one of the three vessels that were held for nearly two weeks before being released last weekend, told China Central Television (CCTV) yesterday that North Korean authorities forced him to sign a blank document.

He said it was not until soon before their release that he was told it was a letter confessing they had entered the waters illegally.

The letter was written in Korean, but Wang said he saw the North Koreans had changed the co- ordinates of the capture from 123-57E to 124-02E, less than a degree to the east and just inside North Korean waters.

Although China and North Korea have not established an official boundary in the East China Sea, maritime authorities of the two countries have mutually regarded longitude 124 degrees east as an “internal control line”, according to the captured fishermen.

The captains of the other two ships said they were also presented with similar documents. One of them, Zhu Chuang , said he resisted, believing that data stored in his ship’s satellite navigation system would prove they were in Chinese waters.

“They tried to force me to sign, but I never did,” he told CCTV.

Almost every Chinese fishing vessel at sea is equipped with navigation devices receiving satellite signals. The system, developed by the People’s Liberation Army, allows captains to know their whereabouts with a very low margin of error.

Three Chinese fishing boats, which had been freed by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), anchor at a port of Dalian, northeast China’s Liaoning Province, May 21, 2012. A total of 29 Chinese fishermen and their three fishing boats returned to Dalian on Monday morning, following 13 days of detention by the DPRK. (Xinhua/Liu Debin)

While the fishermen’s detention has not put a damper on official DPRK-China relations, the fishermen and Chinese netizens view the ordeal as something of an abscess in the “lips and teeth” relationship.  Washington Post reports:

“This is the most horrible memory in my life,” Wang said. “They all wore deep-blue military uniforms, and they had a military flag on their boat. They were the North Korean navy.”

Wang said that he had encountered North Koreans in the past who were friendly but that this time, “they were even worse than bandits.” Noting that Pyongyang “is supposed to be a friend of China’s,” he added: “What happened to me this time changed my idea of North Korea completely.”

The fishermen’s accounts of mistreatment have also appeared widely in Chinese news media, which describe it as “torture.”

Shan Shixian, the owner of one of the boats, said in an interview that the kidnappers initially demanded a ransom of about $65,000 per boat but later just stripped the vessels and the men of everything they had. “They stole about one ton of fish on my boat, a dozen tons of diesel, my boat’s radar, the components, the battery and all the cargo,” Shan said. “Everything on the boat was looted.”

“I hate North Korea so much,” he said. “They not only robbed my fishermen, they tortured them. I’d kill them if I ever met any of them.” He added: “They are more like hooligans than the real hooligans. People are all scared.”

The sentiments of the captain and the boat owner were echoed even more vociferously on the Twitter-like microblogging site Weibo, which has emerged as China’s sounding board for public opinion. And public opinion has turned decidedly against North Korea, an ally considered so steadfast that Mao Zedong once said the relationship was “as close as lips and teeth.”

Some of the vitriol was aimed at the Chinese government.

“The anger burned in my heart when I saw this piece of news,” wrote one Internet user, posting under the name The Far Off Time. “North Korea always returns evil for good, and the Chinese government always swallows the humiliation and the anger.” The user added: “It’s all because the Chinese government is too weak. Who would dare do this to American fishermen?! Does the Foreign Affairs Ministry have any use?”

Another user, writing under the name Unplugged Cat, wrote: “We raised a dog to watch the door, but were bitten by the crazy dog!”

A user named Zhuang Yuance asked, “Why should we shelter this bad neighbor against the will of people in most countries in the world? Will the North Korean people really appreciate us one day?”

The kidnapping was one of the hottest trending topics on China’s microblogging sites. That the Chinese government’s normally vigilant censors had allowed the open debate suggested that even Beijing’s leaders were becoming exasperated with Pyongyang.

China’s official media, meanwhile, have tried to play down the controversy, noting that all the crew members were eventually released and that no ransom was paid. An article in the Communist Party-owned Global Times newspaper Wednesday carried the headline: “Hype unnecessary over N. Korean sea action.”

Overview of area showing where the Chinese commercial fishing trawlers and crew were captured on 8 May 2012 and Sok Islet where the trawlers and crew were held. The yellow line estimates the unofficial DPRK-China maritime boundary (Photo: Google image)

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