A group of unidentified North Koreans have kidnapped more than two dozen Chinese fishermen and demanded 1.2 million yuan (U.S. $190,000) for their release, according to Chinese state media and sources close to the crew.
The kidnappers boarded three separate Chinese fishing vessels operating in waters separating the northeastern coast of China from North Korea on May 8, holding a total of 29 sailors captive at gunpoint before locking them in the holds of their ships, according to the official Xinhua news agency.
One report said some Chinese nationals were working hand in glove with the North Koreans.
Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Hong Lei said at a briefing in Beijing Thursday that negotiators were “maintaining communication with the North Korean side through relevant channels,” adding that they hope to resolve the issue soon.
The ministry also “informed the North Koreans to ensure the legal rights of the Chinese fisherman,” without elaborating further.
The whereabouts of the sailors and their boats are currently unknown, though reports indicate they may have sailed for North Korean waters.
Agence France Presse quoted a boat owner surnamed Sun from the port city of Donggang in northeastern China’s Liaoning province, where the kidnapped men sailed from, as saying that on May 9 he had spoken with one of the hijacked boat owners who had been given a phone by his captors.
He said that the kidnappers, who he was certain included Chinese nationals, had demanded a ransom of 400,000 yuan (U.S. $63,000) per boat.
"They left us a Chinese number, and once the hijacked boat owner called, I picked up the phone and asked if there were any Chinese people besides them. He whispered 'yes'," he told AFP.
Sun added that another boat owner he works with had spoken with the hostages earlier this week. His associate had reported hearing the sounds of sailors being beaten and said that the hijacked boat owner he spoke with told him the men had not eaten for two days.
"If the kidnappers don't get the money by [Thursday], they will sell off the boats, which are worth 3 million yuan (U.S. $473,000)," he said.
The kidnapping highlights China’s recent naval troubles as its fishermen operate in waters disputed by its neighbors on the South China Sea.
Beijing’s current claims are based on a 2009 map showing a U-shaped dotted line extending from China and enclosing virtually the entire South China Sea while hugging the coastline of Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines.
Chinese fishermen routinely encounter difficulties from the vessels of neighboring countries which challenge Beijing’s claims, but it was unclear whether the North Korean captors were operating independently or had ties to Pyongyang.
China has imposed a seasonal fishing ban on disputed waters in the South China Sea annually since 1999, but this year the ban comes amid escalating tensions with Hanoi.
Hanoi protested the seasonal ban, which runs from May 16 to August 1, and Vietnamese fishermen have promised to defy the ban.
China’s South China Fishery Administration Bureau said Wednesday it was prepared to enforce the ban and that fishing vessels that violate the rules may have their catches and boats confiscated, the official Xinhua News Agency reported.
The agency said fishing in the banned waters would be seen as "blatant encroachment on China's fishery resources.”
China has also been embroiled in a dispute with the Philippines, with whom it has been in the middle of a month-long territorial spat.
On Wednesday, the Philippines announced its own fishing ban in waters near Scarborough Shoal.
Reported by Joshua Lipes.