China on Thursday urged the Democratic People's Republic of Korea to guarantee the legitimate rights of Chinese crewmen of fishing ships, as a DPRK gunboat hijacked three boats with 29 Chinese fishermen onboard and demanded 1.2 million yuan ($189,800) for their release.
"China is keeping close contact with the DPRK via relevant channels, and we hope this problem will be appropriately resolved as soon as possible," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said at a regular news conference.
There has been no official confirmation about the identities of the people who carried out the seizure of the boats.
Previously, one ship owner whose surname is Zhang told the Chinese-language newspaper the Global Times that hijackers called him on Tuesday, urging the payment of ransom and threatening to "dispose of" the hostages.
He also said that citizens from both the DPRK and China are among the hijackers. "They are carrying guns, and those hijacked fishermen, who are locked in cells without any food, dare not resist," he was quoted as saying.
Sun Caihui, owner of one of the three fishing boats hijacked in the Chinese section of the Yellow Sea on May 8 and dragged to DPRK waters, said the DPRK gunboat, which has the ship number "No.189" painted on the side, was manned by armed men in blue hats and uniforms.
"The gunboat's size is similar to Chinese maritime surveillance boats and it seems to have about 1,000 horsepower," he said, mentioning that he was not on the boat when the seizure took place.
He told China Daily that seven boats were towed away from May 8 to May 10 - four of which have returned after paying what he described as "ransom". But he did not specify the exact amount, saying his boat was still in the hands of the DPRK. "Now we can't get in touch with them (the fishermen)," he said.
He emphasized that the vessels were fishing in Chinese waters, about 10 nautical miles from the maritime boundary between the two countries, when the seizure took place in what was long considered a traditional Chinese fishing area.
A source with Liaoning Marine Fisheries Office, who requested anonymity, said: "These kinds of incidents are commonly seen" in the waters off the maritime boundary between China and the DPRK, "but it is quite uncommon for the DPRK to seize Chinese people in Chinese waters".
The hijackers, still holding the boats and crewmembers, initially demanded payment of 400,000 yuan for each boat, then lowered their request to 300,000 yuan for each and set a deadline of Thursday, said Zhang, the ship owner.
It was not the first occurrence of this type of incident between the two sides, according to Zhang, and he said Chinese ships owners usually paid the "ransom" through private channels. There were many individuals and even companies involved in the previous cases. On many occasions, these people were well connected to DPRK marine forces.
Coast guards in northeastern China's coastal Liaoning province said they were in contact with the DPRK captors, but declined to comment further, China National Radio reported.
So far the DPRK has remained silent on the seizure incident.
Dong Manyuan, a researcher with the China Institute of International Studies, said this incident, individual in nature, would not affect political ties between the two countries.
The Chinese government needs to establish some basic facts before making any further response, he said, adding that the diplomatic services should make strong representations to urge the DPRK to protect the safety of these fishermen.
In addition, Dong said China should further enhance its maritime surveillance and protection, and develop an emergency response mechanism to prevent such incidents.
China is in close contact with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) on the recent detainment of three Chinese fishing boats, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said on Thursday. Full story
Owners of three Chinese fishing boats, which were allegedly seized by an unidentified North Korean ship last week, told the Global Times yesterday that they cannot meet the captors' ransom demand and hope local authorities can help resolve the issue. Full story
China's Foreign Ministry said on Wednesday that it is looking into the reports which claimed that three Chinese fishing vessels have been seized by a group of North Koreans last week, Chongqing Morning Post reports. Full story