Odyssey of Extortion: Chinese Press Coverage of the North Korean Boat Hijacking
How is it that the world beyond Beijing and Pyongyang becomes aware of Chinese-North Korean fishing disputes in the Yellow Sea? North Korea remains silent on such matters, so information is distributed almost purely through reports in mainland Chinese media–in other words, we hear about such events when Beijing needs and wants them to become known. When Chinese fishermen are harassed and detained by North Korean patrol boats, the story is thus not only about the event itself, but how, when, and why the central government in Beijing releases information about the matter.
Word choice also matters. From the perspective of Chinese state media, the recent clash at sea is not some kind of vague misunderstanding or an opportunity for closer coordination. Rather, it is a clear-cut case of, as the original story on this matter stated, a Chinese fishing vessel which had been a “hijacked (被劫持)” by “North Korean maritime police” [朝鲜海警] carrying at least one “submachine gun” who “beat and robbed” the Chinese crew, who were then “returned home” (without their boat) by some undetermined means. The tone of the only descriptive report on the incident (a translation of which follows) was very critical of the North Korean side, and for obvious reasons.
However, it is equally important to note that the Chinese news media did not splash this story around indiscriminately, and, in fact confined its coverage largely to the Xinjingbao (cited in English reports as the Beijing Daily). The censors in Beijing allowed for no independent coverage of the event from Dalian, the port of origin for the detained men. While the foreign-affairs tabloid Huanqiu Shibao has been rather critical of the DPRK in the past and tends to get its nationalistic hackles up rather quickly, it was, in the current case, concurrently putting up happy images of successful North Korean athletes returning from Incheon rather than blasting images of bruised fishermen on its heavily-trafficked front web-page. When Huanqiu did finally cover the story, it was only by quoting a one-sentence brush-off about it at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs press conference in Beijing. North Korea got criticized by Huanqiu in other ways–namely, what amounted to a very rare Chinese broadside against the North Korean gulags, using a map purloined from Joshua Stanton, no less.
If one views the North Korean state as a unitary actor and Kim Jong-un or his generals as deciding to go after a Chinese vessel as a means of stirring trouble with their main ally for whatever reason, the timing is awful. The North Korean Foreign Minister is in New York, the DPRK is on a serious defensive over human rights, and presumably is going to need all the help they can get from China in defending themselves against what is viewed as “external interference” into their security affairs.
Or, somewhat paradoxically, we could see the routinization of this case as a sign of the robustness of the Sino-North Korean relationship, in that the incident did not bleed over into other parts of the relationship, and has been successfully stovepiped, if not absolutely suppressed. It is bad news for North Korea’s image within the PRC, but then again, so are a lot of other things. Finally, the existence of an ongoing problem along the sea lanes and fishing zones with the DPRK is now unmistakable – the PRC media reports scrupulously recall similar incidents in 2012 and 2013 (covered by Sino-NK here and here, by Roger Cavazos and Leonid Petrov, respectively) when North Korean ships boarded Chinese fishing vessels and held PRC nationals for ransom.
Liu Gang and Zhang Ting, “Dalian Crew Detained by North Korea: The Other Side was Holding a Submachine Gun, and Beat Them Up” [大连被朝鲜扣押船员:对方持冲锋枪登船遭拳打脚踢], Xinjing Bao, September 24, 2014.
On the evening of September 12, at 10 p.m., a fishing boat embarked for work from Dalian Jinzhou District into the Yellow Sea, and, under the pretext of having engaged in [illegal] cross-border fishing, was forcibly seized and towed away by North Korean individuals [朝鲜方面人员], who then demanded that the boat’s owner pay a fine of 250,000 yuan. At the present time, the crew has been released, but the boat remains detained.
On September 17, the boat owner reported the incident to the national border police station in Dalian Jinzhou distrct. Yesterday morning, [this] Xinjingbao reporter was informed by the PRC Foreign Ministry that they had been informed of the matter, and had conveyed [the information] to the Chinese Embassy in the DPRK. A representative of the Chinese Embassy in the DPRK stated that they had intervened with the North Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs the previous evening.
The hijacked fishing boat was the “Liaowayu 55090.” According to information introduced by Zhang Xikai, the fishing boat departed on September 6 from Dalian Xingshu (杏树; Apricot Tree) fishing port with a total of six crew members on board. On September 14, Zhang Xikai suddenly received a strange phone call, the caller claiming to be a member of the North Korean maritime police (朝鲜海警) who told Zhang Xikai that his boat had been fishing illegally in North Korean waters, that the boat and crew had been detained, and that he needed to pay a fine of 250,000 yuan, in order to release the detained fishing boat and crew.
On the evening of September 17, the six crew were returned to their fishing village, their bodies bearing bruises from having been beaten (殴打的伤痕), their money and even their belts having been robbed. After the crew returned home, Zhang Xikai informed the border police station of Dalian Jinzhou district, Xingshu Village.
The crew insisted that they had not entered the Korean waters, much less engage in fishing across the [border] line. Zhang Xikai said that it was at the time they were working within the normal operating offshore limits for Chinese fishing that the fishermen were hijacked by North Korean personnel [朝鲜方面人员], and forcibly dragged into North Korean waters.
Background: In recent years, many [Chinese] fishing boats seized by North Korea. [The article goes on to review similar incidents in 2012 and 2013.]
The hijacked fishing boat was Liaowayu, No. 55090. Captain Yao Ruisheng (幺瑞生) said that the boat had departed on September 6 from Dalian apricot sea in order to start fishing operations. At 10 p.m. on September 12, Yao Ruisheng was in the process of preparing fishing nets when suddenly a motorboat appeared on the water, with a total of six people on board. After the motorboat pulled up near the fishing boat, four people boarded the fishing boat, two of them holding submachine guns (冲锋枪).
After boarding the boat, [the North Koreans] kicked the boat captain and crew, forcing them down into the hold of the ship. Yao Ruisheng recalled: “[The North Koreans] were wearing camouflage clothing and camouflage shoes, holding a very long submachine gun; they forced us down into the ship hold, and then used our lock to hold us in.”
Subsequently, the North Koreans ordered [Yao] to drive the ship away, traveling in a northern direction deeper into North Korean waters, halting after about two and a half hours.
According to the data on the log display of the fishing vessels, the boat finally stopped at latitude 38 ° 11 ‘, longitude 124 ° 47’ on an island whose name is not known.
Yao Ruisheng said that at this time, they called out the crew, and, at gun point, the crew was forced to squat with their hands over their heads; they were then photographed. “They say that these photos were evidence of our having done cross-border fishing,” said Yao, “but it’s obvious that it was them who dragged us over [the boundary line].”
Then [the North Koreans] demanded that Yao Ruisheng sign a document. “I told them I wouldn’t sign it, so they hit me, and then pointed a gun at me. After that I signed” [我说不签字，他们就打我，又拿枪指着我。后来我签了].
A few days later, Yao Ruisheng and other five crew members had been continuously locked up in the cabin of the ship, being able to leave only to go to the toilet. On one occasion, when crew member Zhao Dexi (赵德喜) took a bit too long on the toilet, he was pushed to the ground by a North Korean who looked like a guard [朝方看守人员] were pushed to the ground and simultaneously kicked in the chest by two [North Koreans].
On the evening of September 16, the ship captain Yao Ruisheng and his five crew members were suddenly kicked out of the cabin. One of the North Koreans who could speak Chinese said, “It is OK to let you go now; you can go back. Tell your boss that he better pay up quickly, or he won’t get his boat back” [可以先放他们回去。让我们回去跟老板说赶快交钱，不然船拿不回]. According to the boat crew member Guo Chuan (郭全), the whole crew then left the small island, boarding a cargo ship going to Dandong, changing boats three or four times on the seas, arriving back to Dalian Jinzhou on the night of September 17.
Source: Liu Gang and Zhang Ting, “Dalian Crew Detained by North Korea: The Other Side was Holding a Submachine Gun, and Beat Them Up” [大连被朝鲜扣押船员:对方持冲锋枪登船遭拳打脚踢], Xinjing Bao, September 24, 2014. Translation by Adam Cathcart.