BEIJING (AP) — A Chinese boat and 16 fishermen seized for ransom by armed North Koreans more than two weeks ago were released Tuesday, easing the latest irritant in relations between the neighboring allies.
Owner Yu Xuejun, who wasn't aboard the boat when it was seized May 5, wrote on his verified microblog that his captain called him at 3:50 a.m. to say the crew and boat were set free. Yu told the state-run Global Times newspaper all of the crewmembers were OK, and other state media reports said the men would resume fishing for a couple of weeks before returning home.
After word of the boat's capture became public over the weekend, China 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. One of China's North Korea watchers said border guards were the likely culprits.
No ransom was paid as was demanded by the North Koreans, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said at a regularly scheduled news conference.
The incident became publicly known only over the weekend when Yu, who had previously reported the seizure to Chinese authorities, began publicizing it as a deadline for a 600,000 yuan ($100,000) ransom drew near.
His pleas for help and fears that his crew might be mistreated were forwarded thousands of times by netizens, and a high-ranking Chinese military officer, Maj. Gen. Luo Yuan, wrote on the Twitter-like 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.
The seizure had added to China's frustration with North Korea over its recent tests of nuclear and rocket technologies in defiance of international efforts to curb the country's nuclear ambitions. At the same time, the Chinese government has been under intense pressure to protect Chinese who venture abroad and out to sea for their livelihoods.
A similar abduction a year ago of Chinese fishermen by armed North Koreans caused an uproar in China when they were released — some of them stripped of everything but their underwear — saying they had been starved and beaten.
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 deal with the matter.
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 the 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."
The owner had previously been reported as saying he received a phone call from North Korea telling him his boat had been in North Korean waters, but that he was certain it had been floating in Chinese waters.