A dispute has emerged after three Chinese fishing boats were seized in North Korea. Pyongyang's traditional ally Beijing is treading diplomatically, more used to fishing disputes with other neighbors.
The crew of a North Korean vessel is reported to have boarded the three fishing boats, seizing control and locking up the 29 Chinese fishermen on board earlier this month.
Chinese state media said on Thursday that a ransom of 1.2 million yuan (190,000 US dollars) was being demanded for the release of the men and vessels.
The owners were quoted by the Beijing News newspaper as saying that the boats had been seized in the Yellow Sea by what appeared to be a North Korean gunboat on May 8.
According to the paper, the boat was manned by armed men in blue hats and uniforms. It remained unclear on Thursday whether the seizure was sanctioned by the North Korean government or was the independent initiative of local officials.
The newspaper was also told by the Chinese Foreign Ministry that the incident was a "fisheries case," and that that it would be resolved speedily.
"China is maintaining close contact with North Korea through the relevant channels, and we hope this problem will be appropriately solved as soon as possible," Hong Lei from the foreign ministry told a daily briefing.
"We have also stated to North Korea that it should ensure the legitimate rights of Chinese ship personnel," he said.
The motive for the seizing of the fishing boats is unclear, considering China is North Korea’s closest ally and provides the country with considerable amounts of food and oil.
There is some speculation, however, that the affair could be financially driven.
Spats are not infrequent
Chinese fishermen often find themselves in trouble with the authorities of smaller neighboring countries, fishing in waters claimed by both China and its neighbors.
Tensions surfaced with the Philippines in April over a rock formation known as the Scarborough Shoal. Filipino officials had tried to arrest Chinese fishermen at the shoal, which is claimed by Manila, before Beijing sent in naval vessels.
Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia are also involved in a long-standing border dispute with China over the mineral rich South China Sea.
Sino-Japanese relations also hit a low patch in 2010 when Japanese authorities arrested a Chinese captain for ramming his trawler against Japanese coastguard ships near to the disputed Diaoyu or Senkaku islands, in the East China Sea.
Closer to Pyongyang, South Korean officials claim to have seized hundreds of Chinese ships in recent years for illegal fishing in the Yellow Sea. The sea is rich in blue crabs, anchovies and croaker. Vessels and their crews are normally released after the payment of a fine, although there are often instances of violence. In 2008, a South Korean coastguard officer was killed in a confrontation with Chinese fishermen.
rc/act (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)