Gunmen wearing North Korean military uniforms released a Chinese fishing boat after holding its crew for two weeks, beating up the captain and stealing the vessel's fuel, the boat's owner said. He added that the hijackers did not get the 600,000 yuan ($100,000) ransom they had demanded.
The seizure May 5 in what boat owner Yu Xuejun said were Chinese waters was the latest irritant in relations between North Korea and a Chinese government increasingly frustrated with its neighboring ally over tests of its nuclear and rocket technologies in defiance of U.N. bans. One of China's North Korea watchers said rogue border guards were probably responsible, rather than the Pyongyang government itself.
Yu said in an interview that the men released Tuesday were allowed to move around the boat while they were held captive, but were locked in a room at night. He said the captain suffered an arm injury when he was beaten, but he has since recovered, and that no other crew member was harmed. They now planned to stay out at sea for another 10 days.
"The North Koreans only left the crew with one sack of rice and one sack of flour. But this shouldn't be a problem as there are a lot of boats in that region now, all from Dalian," he said, referring to the northeast China port where his boat is based. "With their help, the crews will do OK for the next 8 or 10 days."
Yu publicized the boat's capture over the weekend on his Tencent Weibo microblog as a ransom deadline neared. China then publicly demanded that North Korea release the men, though Chinese officials have not said whether they believe the armed captors were operating on their own or under North Korean government authority.
No ransom was paid, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said at a news briefing Tuesday.
"We demand North Korea investigate this case fully and furnish China with details, and take measures to stop such cases repeating themselves," Hong said.
Yu also said he hadn't paid any ransom. "We were working in our country's waters — why should I pay them?" he said. He had earlier written online that he couldn't afford it.
He said the captors "looked like soldiers, and the captain said they had guns and used force to take over the boat."
Yu posted coordinates on his microblog indicating the seizure took place about 100 kilometers (60 miles) from the westernmost point of North Korea and about 190 kilometers (120 miles) from Dalian.
That area is outside both countries' territorial waters — defined as 12 nautical miles from their shores — but within their overlapping Exclusive Economic Zones, which give them rights to resources including fishing. Jurisdictions in overlapping zones are not always clear.
Yu said the North Koreans took fuel and food, but navigation and communication equipment that was initially taken was returned, Yu said.
Yu's pleas for help and his frets that his crew might be mistreated were forwarded thousands of times on the Internet, and a high-ranking Chinese military officer, Maj. Gen. Luo Yuan, wrote on Sina Weibo of his fury over the detention.
"North Korea has gone too far! Even if you are short of money, you can't grab people across the border and blackmail," wrote Luo, who has more than 300,000 followers.
A similar abduction a year ago of Chinese fishermen by armed North Koreans caused an uproar in China. After their release, those fishermen said they had been starved and beaten, and some had been stripped of everything but their underwear.
Hong, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, had declined to answer a question Monday about who exactly China believed was behind the boat seizure, but he made clear that Beijing was looking for the North Korean government to secure the release of the boat and crew.
An expert on North Korea at the Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences in northeast China said he doubted the North Korean government would have had any knowledge of the incident when it happened.
"This incident is purely about a lawless act by the North Korean border police to blackmail our fishermen," said Lu Chao, adding that such things frequently happen to Chinese fishermen working near border waters.
"Sometimes, if the amount they are asking for isn't too high, the boat owner would just pay it," he said. This time, it might be related to spring food shortages, "so they are asking for a huge ransom."
AP researcher Flora Ji contributed to this report.