Chinese boat's captain beaten by North Koreans: Owner

BEIJING (AP) - The owner of a Chinese fishing boat seized for more than two weeks by armed North Koreans said the captors wore military uniforms, and that they beat up the boat's captain and stole its fuel.

Owner Yu Xuejun, who was not aboard the boat that was seized on May 5 in what he says were Chinese waters, said in an interview that the men were allowed to move around the boat while they were held captive, but they were locked in a room at night. He said the captain suffered an arm injury when he was beaten, but he has since recovered.

Mr Yu also added that the captors eventually released the boat on Tuesday without the ransom they had demanded.

After Mr Yu publicized the boat’s capture over the weekend, China had 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, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said at a news briefing.  Mr Yu reported the seizure to Chinese authorities, and later began writing about it in his microblog as a deadline for a 600,000 yuan (S$122,400) ransom drew near. His pleas for help and fears that his crew might be mistreated were forwarded thousands of times over the Internet, and a high-ranking Chinese military officer, Major-General 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 Maj-Gen 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 when they were released. Those fishermen said they had been starved and beaten, and some had been stripped of everything but their underwear. Mr Hong, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, had declined to answer a question on 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 north-east 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 Mr 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”.

The incident was the latest irritant in relations between North Korea and a Chinese government increasingly frustrated with its neighbouring ally over tests of its nuclear and rocket technologies in defiance of United Nations bans.