As maritime tensions with neighbors including Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines continue to simmer, China has a fresh grievance with a somewhat unexpected antagonist: North Korea. On May 8, the isolated authoritarian regime detained 28 Chinese fishermen in the Yellow Sea and demanded payments of as much as $63,000 for each of the three vessels held. On Monday, the three boats returned to the Chinese port city of Dalian with no apparent payment of ransom. But the fishermen’s lengthy detention and stories of abuse that have emerged after their release have fueled anger in China and a sense that North Korea doesn’t respect its only major ally. “People are really upset. This didn’t show North Korean friendship toward China,” says Yan Xuetong, dean of the Institute of Modern International Relations at Tsinghua University in Beijing. “They kept them for too long and didn’t return them as quickly as possible.”
The fishermen were held for 13 days. The captains of their three boats were pressed to sign documents in Korean that indicated they had sailed into North Korean waters, which they argue was incorrect, according to Chinese press reports. Upon release, the fishermen discovered that their boats had largely been stripped of cash, valuable electronics and even toiletries, Wang Lijie, captain of one of the boats, told the 21st Century Business Herald, a Chinese newspaper. Many of them had their clothes taken as well, returning to port in their underwear. Wang said they had been deprived of sufficient food and some of them had been beaten by their captors, who appeared to be members of the North Korean military. Wang told the newspaper that a cook who was angered by the North Koreans using a Chinese flag to cart off a radar was later beaten by three soldiers who tore open his lip. The fishermen underwent a medical check upon their release; three reported headaches and one, a stomachache, the state-run Xinhua news service reported, but no serious injuries.
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Online, Chinese sentiment toward North Korea has run highly negative in recent days. “There’s no point in helping a country like this,” wrote one user of the Twitter-like Sina Weibo service. “Take any excess grain and throw it in the sea, just don’t give it to them.” In recent years, China has been a key source of food and energy aid to the impoverished country, as well as allowing it to run significant trade deficits. Beijing has also regularly ordered the repatriation of North Koreans who cross into northeast China for food, work or a chance to travel on to South Korea. Despite the likelihood that they will face severe punishment upon their return to North Korea, China treats them as “economic migrants” rather than refugees in need of protection. Such policies are driven by the Chinese desire for stability in North Korea. The Chinese government fears that a collapse of the regime in Pyongyang would send millions of refugees streaming into northeast China and lead to a unified Korea that could see American troops stationed on the Chinese border.
China’s leadership appears unlikely to break with the North Korean regime over this episode, despite public anger. Beijing has been a key supporter of Kim Jong Un, who assumed power in Pyongyang after the death of his father Kim Jong Il in December. Although China went along with a U.N. Security Council vote to condemn North Korea’s failed satellite launch last month, Chinese President Hu Jintao also sent a message of congratulations to Kim for his promotion to a leadership role in the North Korean Workers’ Party. Last week, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs called on North Korea to ensure the safety of the detained Chinese fishermen, and this week said the Bureau of Fisheries would carry out an investigation, but it declined to condemn North Korean actions. While the Global Times, a tabloid run by the Communist Party, described the abuses of the Chinese fishermen, in a subsequent story it blamed foreign media for using the incident to stir up disharmony between Beijing and Pyongyang. “People are very unhappy with the North Korean government’s treatment of our own people,” says Tsinghua University’s Yan. “But at this moment, the negative impact, it’s hard to make a judgment how much it will be.”