Porous Net: 28 Questions on the “Chinese Fisherman Held Hostage by North Korea” Narrative
by Adam Cathcart
It remains a bit early to draw sweeping conclusions about what this all means, the data points are adding up to a not-so-pretty picture and the fallout to China’s relationship with North Korea seems likely to be rather intense.
With reference to the Chinese sources available, more and more are coming out, but this represents a decent cross-section of what has been written so far. Given the fluidity of how this is all unfolding, I will continue to update this entry until all 28 questions — one for each fisherman — are posed and “answered.” Readers are invited to tender their own responses, questions, and links in the comments section and I will do my best to get those moderated as quickly as possible.
1. What happened in the first place?
Evan Ramstad at Wall Street Journal’s summary is as good as any:
The circumstances of the detention are unclear. According to Chinese media, three fishing vessels operating in Chinese waters in the northern reaches of the Yellow Sea were forcibly boarded on May 8. All three vessels and their crews were then taken to North Korea.
The North Koreans who seized the Chinese fishing crews had guns, but it wasn’t clear whether they were police. Several Chinese media reports say the Chinese fishing boats were operating in Chinese waters.
The following day, one of the Chinese detainees made a call via satellite phone back to a fishing company in Donggang [Liaoning province, near Dandong], where all the vessels were based, and said the North Koreans were seeking payments of 400,000 yuan, or about $63,000, per vessel to secure the release of the 29, state-run China Central Television reported Wednesday.
Yesterday, after some as-yet-unclear negotiating jujitsu, all three of the boats along with 28 of the reported 29 fishermen returned to China’s Liaodong Peninsula early this morning, May 21.
2. Did the North Koreans Kill Anybody?
Huanqiu Shibao conspicuously reports that while 29 fisherman had been reported detained, only 28 arrived back in Dalian after the release. The list of names, places of origin, and ID numbers of individual detained fisherman has been available for several days now; it appears that state media is not going to release the names of the 28 released (which would allow netizens to immediately find the missing name) or explain why the discrepancy exists. This is slightly strange. Since the information as to the number of returnees is from Hao Zhou [郝洲], a Xinhua reporter on the scene at the hospital where the fishermen are being checked, it trumps reports like this one from BBC that states that all 29 came back.
[Update: Xinhua vaguely explained the discrepancy this way on May 21, without giving names: "Upon verification, a total of 28 fishermen were detained. The previous report put the number at 29, as one fisherman left the vessel due to seasickness before it was detained, which the owner of the vessel did not know." Again, it would be rather surprising if Chinese netizens accepted this as truth.]
3. What Condition Were the Vessels and Crew In Upon their Return to Dalian?
Not good. Chinese state media disclosed that “三艘中国渔船的物资被全部抢光，船上一片狼藉，多数船员在关押时衣服也被扒得只剩内衣，船员的情绪十分低落 [The three boats were completely stripped of supplies, the deck in ruins, and all of the fisherman had been stripped of their clothes with the exception of their underwear. The morale of the crew is completely low.]” One can assume that state media has is treating this gingerly; there has been no triumphal return with PLA naval escort, in any event. Xinhua photographer 刘德斌 (Liu Debing) was on the scene and has some photos at the link above. The boats are moored in the Dali military harbor [大连大李军港码头] in Dalian.
4. What did we learn from the returned sailors?
From the print media, we can find a short and fairly explosive interview with the captain of one of the vessels:
辽丹渔23979号船长朱闯向环球网记者表示，当时被朝方扣押时，我渔船正在中国渔业区作业。朝鲜士兵强行登船后，将我渔民全部关押在船上一个装垃圾的小仓中。Zhu Chuang, the captain of Liaodan Fishing Vessel #23979, told a Huanqiu Net reporter that “At the time that the North Koreans captured us, our ship was working directly in China’s fishing zone [正在中国渔业区作业]. After the North Korean soldiers forcibly boarded the vessel, they put held all of we fisherman into the ship’s garbage compartment.”
Presumably, more of this kind of material is going to be coming out and it won’t be very nice.
5. Who were the pirates?
One of the only sources of information for this whole case prior to today was the boat captain back in Dalian, surnamed Zhang, who said that the kidnappers who called him spoke Chinese. Perhaps in combination with the fact that the list of held Chinese contained many who hailed from Heilongjiang and northeast China is famous for acts of transnational banditry, speculation began to pool around the notion that the whole thing was concocted by Heilongjiang gangs in collusion with law-breaking North Korean soldiers. This meme has been now been conclusively struck down by the interview with Captain Zhu, who appears to be the source for the reporting that when the North Koreans got on the boat, there were some who spoke Chinese, but that they weren’t Chinese. “From the beginning to the end,” wrote the reporters, the North Koreans spoke not one word to them, and gave them food down in the garbage hold, where they were deprived of sunlight for 13 days. Finally, at the very end, a North Korean opened the door and told them in simple Chinese, “You go (你走).”
Still no speculation allowed in official Chinese mediaabout KPA (Korean Peoples’ Army) involvement, but there ought to be feast of such on Weibo, and the Daily NK report on Friday seems one step closer to confirmation.
6.What did the Chinese Embassy say about the case?
Nothing, until they put this out (and, in my book, back-dated it May 18; I made a check of the Embassy’s website on May 19 and certainly do not recall seeing this):
连日来，刘洪才大使及中国驻朝鲜使馆外交、领 事官员一直就朝鲜近期抓扣中方渔船事与朝方进行交涉并保持沟通，要求朝方确保中国船员合法权益。据朝方通报称，目前中国船员安全无恙，饮食、健康均有保 障，部分被扣船只和船员已返航。中国驻朝鲜使馆将继续努力，确保问题尽快得到妥善解决。In the past few days, Ambassador Liu Hongcai, along with diplomats and consular officers in the Chinese Embassy in the DPRK, have continuously initiated negotiations and maintained close communication with the North Korean side [与朝方进行交涉并保持沟通] with regard to the recent snatching [抓扣] of Chinese fishing boats, requesting that the North Korean side to ensure the legitimate rights and interests of the Chinese crew. According to reports by the North Korean side, the current condition of the crew is that they are completely unharmed, and that their diet and health are guaranteed, and that both the crew and vessel could be returned [This is a bit unclear; indicative that the ships themselves might have been a negotiating point, a la USS Pueblo?]. The Chinese Embassy in the DPRK will continue to work hard to ensure that problems are properly resolved as soon as possible.
7. What else was the Chinese ambassador doing this whole time?
When the case was finally discussed in public on Thursday by the Chinese Foreign Ministry, MOFA spokesman intimated that “diplomats” were working on the case, which clearly included Liu Hongcai, China’s ambassador to North Korea.
The Embassy’s public itinerary has been quite light since the death of Kim Jong Il, and this month was no exception. On May 8, the day of the abductions at sea, something actually happened: a group of Chinese students arrived in Pyongyang. The Ambassador, who would normally meet as the epicenter in the small world of overseas Chinese in Pyongyang, was not there. On May 15, the Ambassador emerged to give a speech and have some dinner at a commercial gathering in Pyongyang, ironically enough, drumming up business for visiting trade delegations from Liaoning and Jilin, which is where most of the hostages hailed from.
One of the major “events” in North Korean foreign policy prior to the incident blowing up was a renewed embrace of Indonesia, and Liu Hongcai played a role here as well, both sending off and then meeting again the octogenarian Kim Yong-nam at the Pyongyang airport at either end of his trip in mid-May.
The interesting thing here is that Liu Hongcai’s involvement in the Indonesia hand-off was not reported in the Chinese media, but mentioned twice in North Korean media, both the original Rodong Sinmun release about Kim’s departure, and then in English KCNA when the Foreign Minister came back. This discrepancy in coverage is interesting because DPRK state media tends to mention Liu Hongcai when they want something and ignore him when they don’t.
[Update: On May 10, two days after the initial seizure of the Chinese boats, Ambassador Liu Hongcai inked a deal with KPA representatives in Pyongyang regarding the trans-Yalu bridge between Ji'an and Man'po, a route which leads to Tonghua on the Chinese side and Kanggye on the North Korean side. Neither are huge cities by northeast Asian standards, but they are significant corridors for industrial and arms production, and the Ji'an-Man'po route was the predominant route for the influx of Chinese soldiers into Korea in 1950. The signing ceremony was held up in North Korean media, but was not covered either in the Chinese press or the Chinese Embassy website. At what point did Liu Hongcai actually know what had happened? This remains an open question.]
8. What is the North Korean official line on the incident?
On Friday, May 18, the Embassy in Beijing had the lead quote on page 1 in Huanqiu Shibao: “We don’t know anything about this case,” said a spokesperson from the North Korean embassy to a Chinese reporter, “everything we know about it was in the Chinese media reports.”
Today, the same North Korean Embassy, the only government entity which has made any public statement at all about the incident, states that the fishermen were released from North Korean custody on May 18 (and, presumably, got wrapped up in a space-time continuum warp of some kind in the Yellow Sea, because it took them more than 2.5 days to cover what should take nine hours).
As ever, the Huanqiu Shibao is the only source with a quote, which follows a very confusing series of paragraphs with a boat captain named Sun Caihui who escaped the original abduction and had spent 40 hours wide awake starting on the 18th, anticipating that he would be seeing the three returned boats, but was completely unable to contact them by telephone, telegraph, GPS, etc. It was further noted that Dalian is only 8 or 9 hours away by boat from the area where the fiserhman were being held. In so many words, this story is poking holes in the veracity of North Korean claims to the Chinese that they had let the boats go on May 18, because, in fact, the North Koreans were still holding them and improvising some kind of excuse.
Here, in any event, is the quote from the North Korean embassy:
“朝中不应该发生这件事。”朝鲜驻华使馆一名官员20日对《环球时报》记者这样说。他向记者谈起中国志愿军抗美援朝的历史，称“两国关系很重要”。当记 者告诉他，中国渔船被朝方武装人员劫持引起中国民众不满时，这名官员表示，“理解中国民众对船员安全的担心”。他说，朝中之间海上发生这样的问题，怎么解 决很重要。需要先搞清到底发生了什么情况，然后按两国人民的利益好好解决。”The DPRK and China did not have to have this incident,” an official at the North Korean Embassy in Beijing told a Huanqiu Shibao reporter on May 20. He talked to the reporter about the history of the Chinese People’s Volunteers in the War to Resist America and Aid Korea, and said “the relationship between the two countries is very important.” At the same time, he told the reporter that the taking of the Chinese boats by force by the North Korean side had given the Chinese masses some unhappy times. This official said, “[We] understand the worries that the Chinese masses have about the safety of the fishermen.” He said that [now that] North Korea and China had encountered/produced this problem on the seas, it was important that it be resolved as quickly as possible. First, it the situation that produced the problem needed to be made clear, and then the peoples of the two countries could successfully solve it well.
9. Did North Korean media telegraph any information whatsoever which could be linked to the incident?
On May 15, KCNA blasted off what would under other circumstances be a pretty orthodox anti-Japanese defense of Dokdo which concluded with a reminder that the name of the sea was “a serious issue related to the territorial integrity of Korea, a seagirt country, as it decides whether it protects sovereignty over all its territorial waters or not.”
On May 17, KCNA ran one of its periodic attacks on Japanese focus on the abduction issue, but paid curious attention to the assertion that North Korean agents had abducted an American (in 2004) from Chinese territory in Yunnan province.
On May 14, Rodong Sinmun appeared to coin the new phrase “mischief of the sharks” to criticize foreign forces (named as the US and South Korea) who feared North Korea’s military rise. On May 12, the same paper slammed the same forces as undertaking “Rash Act of Air Pirates” to describe military drills.
North Korean media has been pushing the new idea of “Kim Jong Il Patriotism,” and has indicated that in the Kim Jong Un era, KCNA and Rodong Sinmun are not completely adverse to following a Chinese media model of youth-based popular nationalism embracing the sphere of popular rumors. However, the North Korean media clearly is not using the sea confrontation with China to amp up popular nationalism — yet. Four months from now, will we begin to learn that Kim Jong Un’s military genius was behind these acts of great bravado? In other words, is North Korea’s political culture going to treat them more or less the way that the Cheonan Incident was dealt with?
[Update: See #11, below]
10. Isn’t everyone thankful that the Chinese government handled this incident so well?
One of the most incredible aspects of this entire affair is that it is has entirely lacked a face. There has been next to zero television coverage of the affair. (The lead item on last night’s CCTV central news, as if to confirm the wholesale embrace of a manufactured reality, was the 70th anniversary of the publication Mao’s 1942 Yenan lectures on art and society. There was precisely one item about North Korea on the same program the day before, right at the end, picturing a completely empty exhibition of North Korean postage stamps in London.) The Chinese Ambassador, who was on television to spout four minutes of platitudes about friendship on the dead old man’s birthday, has not taken to the cameras. No one apparently wants to touch these fisherman and the highest official who has expressed anything approaching anger at their treatment have been unnamed fisheries officials and a certain scholar in Liaoning. Fortunately, someone thought to put a banner up on one of the returned vessels, not quite as arrogant as “Mission Accomplished” but about as tone-deaf: “Thank you, government.”
11.Did the North Korean media issue anything remotely apologetic regarding China, or do they appear to be taking the gloves off?
The latter: in its own way, the North Korean media is not giving any quarter to China.
How the two events are linked is anyone’s guess, but this KCNA item from May 20 is a very explicit smash on China’s cooperation with the US, ROK, and Japan in the United Nations with regard to criticizing the DPRK’s missile launch and its nuclear program more generally. While there is a brief nod to China being outside of the American architecture in the beginning of the article through evocation of BRICS, China is very clearly implied as working as part of the “U.S.-led imperialists” at the article’s conclusion:
The DPRK emerged a political and military power to the admiration of the whole world. Such reality goes to clearly prove that sanctions applied by the U.S.-led imperialists are anachronistic as they are no longer workable.
Shortly ago, the permanent members of the UNSC [a group which includes China, obviously] issued a “joint statement” urging the DPRK to stop its nuclear activities and give up nuclear deterrence, taking issue with the DPRK’s satellite launch for peaceful purposes.
This is a grave illegal action as it infringed upon the DPRK’s sovereignty and its right to use space and nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, pursuant to the U.S. imperialists’ hostile policy toward the DPRK, and a dastardly action to widen the scope of international sanctions against the DPRK.
With nothing can those forces deprive the DPRK of its sovereign rights. The imperialists should unconditionally lift their sanctions as they are harmful and unreasonable.
Other items show similar themes: using the tried-and-true rhetoric about the US and Japan, China’s presence within the pantheon of oppressor states is strongly implied. I would be happy to argue this point, because this is far from some kind of overt “anti-Chinese” wave in the North Korean press. In any event, it bears watching and noting.
And in the meantime, the state amps up memorialization of the Imjin War, which is a touchstone for Korean nationalism that included plenty of sea battles, of course, and a huge Ming dynasty invasion at the request of the Korean court, most of which, except for the raw nationalism, is left out of this very interesting KCNA dispatch. Once we start seeing a bunch of Koguryo stories, we will know things are in fuller blossom.
12. What about China’s popular nationalism? Hasn’t the PRC media already been worked up to a froth on issues surrounding China’s sea power and territorial rights?
Beijing is smack in the middle of a pretty overt campaign to fan the flames, within limits of course, of popular nationalism. Island and sea disputes with the Philippines and Japan, and previous disputes with ROK over fishing issues and fisherman have added to this, but it goes beyond that. A nice barometer of the desire to amp things up on the nationalism front was seen in this week’s Phoenix Weekly, with a cover story on the “New Patriotic Youth” — almost 20 pages which was almost entirely about the pro-China demonstrations in the PRC, and Seoul/Paris, etc., in 2008 and an interview with the guy who founded anti-CNN.com. In other words, Beijing has been seriously stretching, if not forcing the patriotism issue in the aftermath of its own leadership shocks, applying the tried and true method of spinning anxiety and discontent outwards. For every story about Bo Xilai, Wang Lijun, or Chen Guangcheng, there are ten about a boorish foreign cellist mouthing off on a train, or a CCTV talk show host who flies off the handle to siphon off some rage. The whole internal balance of China is very delicate at the moment and this incident becomes all the more volatile.
13. Is North Korea still “the great exception” in Chinese foreign policy?
Yes, but don’t be surprised if there isn’t heavier security around the DPRK embassy for the next couple of weeks in Beijing.
14. Did this event mark the emergence of the North Korean Embassy in Beijing as a PR force in Chaoyang district? What was the Embassy staff doing during the crisis?
The Embassy’s public relations efforts in China have been notoriously small, particularly when juxtaposed to their neighbors – an Alliance Francaise here, a Cervantes Institute there. PR from the Embassy tends to be limited to changing the pictures in their photo display across from Ritan Park or inviting a few select individuals in to watch a few movies with the purpose of getting a short KCNA story out of the deal.
It is never their goal to be on the front page of China’s newspapers, in other words.
On the Friday of the crisis peak, the Embassy in Beijing had the lead quote on page 1 in Huanqiu Shibao: “We don’t know anything about this case,” said a spokesperson from the North Korean embassy to a Chinese reporter, “everything we know about it was in the Chinese media reports.” Perhaps this will be reminiscent of North Korea’s ham-handed handling of foreign reporters during the April 13 missile launch, or perhaps it is genuinely indicative of ignorance. Who knows?
Within 24 hours, the Embassy was speaking with more authority.
Now it comes out, via Rodong Sinmun and subsequently KCNA, that officials from the DPRK Embassy were at a friendship exhibition in Nanjing from May 18-22, the heart of the dates during which the hostage crisis was frothing. I’ve no data in Chinese as yet about this visit, but it may be an example of provincial organizations moving to defuse national tensions, as Jiangsu has relatively close ties with Pyongyang.
15. What happened to all that rhetoric about “high-level and regular coordination” that the North Koreans, Kim Jong Il, no less, was promising to China in the year before his majesty kicked the bucket?
Well, this test seems to have put all of that to the lie. It seems that Kim Jong Il’s behest can indeed be ignored when it comes to informing putative allies of disagreeable things. Grandfather knows best: when you want to screw over Beijing, don’t tell them anything, because they will always help you when your back is against the wall.
16. Why is Kim Jong Un appearing in public in conspicuous tandem with Jang Song Taek in the aftermath of the hostage crisis?
Who knows? But it’s an interesting coincidence. We have no way of knowing how much of a chord this incident struck within the Pyongyang elite or if Jang’s proximity to the Respected General is supposed to calm people down, give the Chinese ambassador fits, or whatever.
It is worth noting that of the senior members of the inner circle in Pyongyang, the only one who appears to have had any contact with the Chinese directly is Hwang Jang Yop and Kim Yong Nam (who was incorrectly identified in an earlier version of this post as the Foreign Minister; he is the head of the Supreme People’s Assembly), at the Pyongyang Airport upon Kim Yong Nam’s return from Indonesia. Kim Ki-Nam and Hwang Jang-Yop are the individuals who have had the most open contact with the Ambassador. There has been no sign at all of Kim Song-Gi, the Vice-Foreign Minister, who was practically inseparable from the Chinese Ambassador in 2011 through Kim Jong-il’s funeral. Let’s hope that Kim Song-Gi has not been purged or demoted, because his tortured expressions and body language gives me the feeling he might actually have a conscience, and, besides, North Korea needs all the fluent Mandarin speakers with travel experience that it can get.
Incidentally, if Kim Jong Un has been affirmatively associated with Cheonan sinking, mentions of that event as a conspiracy concocted by South Korea seem to have been on the uptick, if by no means overwhelming, since the hostage situation went public. One would imagine that an argument of a Sino-North Korean crisis as having been the work of an American-South Korean conspiracy to be laughable, but the argument was used with reference to the crash of a North Korean fighter in Liaoning in August 2010 and was also brought into play in the field of PR by the Huanqiu Shibao in the present case.
See also this Rodong Sinmun piece blaming May’s Yellow Sea tensions on South Korean naval drills.
17. Does any evidence exist to give credence to the assertion that North Korea did this purposefully as retribution for China’s failure to support the April 13 missile launch?
Keeping in mind the timeline of the incident and the fact that the fishermen were released probably somewhere in the early afternoon of March 20, March 21 would have been the day for the DPRK to make any signal of displeasure for maximum effect. Even if the hijackers were rogue elements, the North Korean leaders still have enough guerrilla instinct swimming around in their nicotine-glutted veins to improvise and make the best of a bad situation. They had, at the very least, three or possibly four days to figure out how to hash this out with China and to garner any gains. This clearly wasn’t about food aid, and it couldn’t entirely be about fishing rights.
On May 21, Rodong Sinmun came out with a pretty stunning grouping of China with the imperialist countries. Full text in English, as I recall it’s worse in Korean.
As it just so happens, May 21 was the day Kim Jong Un reemerged, with Jang Song Taek at his side, to take in some KPA entertainment in a theater where a scant 16 months ago he had lined up with the Chinese Ambassador. Ah, how times change!
18. Have we seen additional signals from North Korean media since the incident that would indicate rhetorical displeasure with the PRC?
It’s possible to read these anytime, because things are sufficiently opaque and refractory. When Rodong Sinmun talks about “ideological toxins from great powers,” do they include China? We have to infer everything, or at least try to read it.
I would argue that a big upsurge in KCNA attacks on Japan’s historical sea rights have served as the proxy vehicle through which North Korea is ginning up more of its own brand of maritime mass nationalism and more or less threatening China with a few big cans of worms.
If in fact Nanfang Zhoumo reports are accurate (which they certainly appear to be) that such fishing disputes have been regular since the 1990s, the following attack on Japanese fisheries issues from 2009 might also have been a signal to China. If not, it remains a rather interesting piece of evidence from which to draw a sense of the kind of passions which appear to animate Pyongyang in its defense of the maritime resources on the periphery.
More discussion of this topic, a big chunk of KCNA on fishing rights, and some bonus discussion of the elusive Western Pacific Grey Whale in a slightly sprawling essay of mine from 2009 (when I was living in a small boat on an inlet of the Pacific) entitled “Asia’s Ahab.”
And as a final notice that the DPRK is tossing messages to China by attacking Japan’s historical claim to fishing rights, see this equally extensive note that goes back to the 5th and 6th century claiming Koguryo dominion over territorial waters. Koguryo references never, ever, means good things for China. If you think this kind of thing is small change or marginal, I would encourage to read Chinese Foreign Ministry Archive freak-outs about North Korea’s historical reports from the early 1960s when the DPRK started to shift its interpretation of the Mongol conquest of the 13th century — it matters.
19. Any other strange North Korean media items that could needle China?
Well, there was this item about helicoptering children out from unnamed remote islands on the West Sea to Pyongyang on May 14 which would indicate either a propensity to mock the impotent Chinese observers or that the propaganda machinery in Pyongyang is simply cranking on with its standard surreal claptrap.
20. When are China and North Korea going to kiss and make up?
Nothing says “I still love you” like a visit to the Juche tower by a Chinese vice-minister of industry with a fetish for model districts and a few juicy contracts in tow. That is what North Korea got these past few days with the visit of Fu Shuangjian, who after ogling the Juche tower and saying how everything was now hunky-dory, signed a memorandum of understanding with the DPRK.
At the same time, previously scheduled massive tours of the Sea of Blood ensemble went into swing in China, bringing something like 200 performers back to the PRC, confirming my assertion that sometimes, opera is the glue that binds this alliance together.
21. Why would the most definitive Chinese story on this question more or less admit that China did not have strong territorial claims?
This article from Nanfang Zhoumo on May 24 was by far the most definitive item in the Chinese news media on the story. However, the emphasis is on ambiguity and Chinese fishermen having paid fees to North Korea in the past.
22. What was being said about the case by scholars in Chinese think-tanks and universities?
Quite a lot, as Roger Cavazos documents on this site.
23. Is the Chinese media beating the drum on this issue after May 24?
No, quite the opposite. The notion of North Korea as one of a group of states with whom the PRC has maritime disputes is handled only indirectly, as in Huanqiu Renwu Zhoukan articles wherein it appears to be referred to as “Country X.”
24. Has the dispute bled into other areas of the relationship or been successfully contained?
As of this update (June 11), it appears that the episode was successfully contained by both sides in terms of public damage control. There was, however, no indication that China got anything at all outt of the interaction: no compensation for the looted fishing boats, no apology, no execution of KPA responsible, no greater flexibility on the North Korea front. The Chinese side appears though to have now extended the line of issues with which it may have problems with Pyongyang.
4 more questions and answers to go….
Tags: Chinese fisherman held by North Korea, Chinese hostages in North Korea, Chinese internet, extortion, Global Times, Hu Xijin, Huanqiu Shibao, North Korean fisherman, North Korean murder threats, rumors, state terrorism, Weibo