A Chinese boat and 16 fishermen seized for ransom by armed North Koreans two weeks ago have been released, easing the latest irritant in relations between the traditional allies.
Yu Xuejun, the owner of the captured boat who was not onboard when it was seized on May 5, wrote on his official microblog on Tuesday that his captain had called him to say the crew and boat were set free and that they were on their way home.
He told the state-run Global Times newspaper that all of the crew members were in good condition.
Yu, who had reported the seizure to Chinese authorities earlier, began publicising the incident over the weekend as a deadline for a $100,000 ransom drew near.
Chinese state media then began reporting on the incident, saying Beijing was demanding that North Korea release the men.
Yu said on his microblog on Tuesday that he had been unable to pay any ransom, and he thanked China’s foreign ministry for negotiating on behalf of his boat and crew.
Yu’s pleas for help and fears that his crew had been mistreated were forwarded thousands of times by netizens and a high-ranking Chinese military officer, Major General Luo Yuan, wrote on the Twitter-like Sina Weibo of his fury at 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 Lei, China’s 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 deal with it.
An expert on North Korea at the Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences in northeast China said he doubted the North Korean government 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.