Pirates or hawks: Who hijacked
Chinese boats? By Leonid Petrov
China often describes its relations with
North Korea, its closest regional ally, as
intimate but not substantial. For more than half a
century, Beijing's attitude towards the Korean
Peninsula has revolved around the avoidance of
three scenarios: "No new war on the Korean
Peninsula"; "No regime change in North Korea" and
"No American troops on the Sino-Korean border".
But can the developments of recent weeks
shake this strategic alliance tested by time, wars
This year, North Korea
declared that it had reached its self-professed
goal of becoming a strong and affluent state.
However, the state of its cross-border trade and
cooperation with China indicates otherwise. There
are signs that inside North Korea's closed borders
the domestic situation in the country is
deteriorating and the regime is using every
opportunity to use
government agencies to
earn desperately needed cash and goods.
range of United Nations sanctions has been imposed
on North Korea. In response to two nuclear tests
and recent ballistic missile launches, a ban on
luxury goods has been imposed on North Korea by
the UN Security Council. The country is now hard
at work, evading these bans, with the help of
Almost all imports of luxury goods
(cigarettes, cosmetics, cars, watches and
computers) go to North Korea via China. The
criminalization of the border trade with North
Korea is notorious within China, whose government
does not officially recognize that the contraband
goods qualify as "luxury items". This ambiguity
often creates situations replete with potential
for border conflicts between the former communist
One incident unfolded in the
Yellow (West) Sea on May 8 involving three Chinese
fishing boats with 29 fishermen onboard.
They were abducted by unidentified and
armed North Koreans, who demanded the payment of
ransom for their return. The vessels were seized
in a traditional Chinese fishing area, about 10
nautical miles from the maritime boundary between
the two countries. Seven Chinese boats were
initially taken; four were later returned to the
port of Dandong in return for ransom.
Three Chinese boats remained in the hands
of the unnamed North Korean kidnappers until all
were released on May 21. Chinese media said
Beijing did not pay a ransom for the boats, but
that the situation was resolved through
"negotiation and close contact" with Pyongyang.
While these kinds of incidents are common,
this one developed in an unusual way.
rule, Chinese shipowners pay the ransom through
private channels. There are many individuals and
even companies involved in such cases and, on many
occasions, they are well connected to North
Korea's marine forces.
This time, however,
the armed hijackers approached the Chinese fishing
vessels on a speed boat. They wore blue hats and
uniforms and some of them spoke perfect Mandarin.
They initially demanded the payment of 400,000
yuan (US$63,000) for each boat, but later lowered
their request and threatened to "dispose" of the
boats if the money was not sent through within a
The demand was transmitted
by satellite phones through the crew members, who
were kept in captivity on shore without food and
were reportedly subjected to beatings.
fact that the captors gave the kidnapped sailors
the mobile number of an intermediary in the border
town of Dandong to discuss how to send the ransom
suggests that the captors were international
For some 10 days, the Chinese
government worked closely with North Korean
maritime authorities to ensure the safety of the
Pyongyang, however, has
still not commented on the incident. While the
nature of this incident remains unclear, it came
after Beijing criticized a recent North Korean
rocket launch and expressed concern over another
nuclear weapons test planned by Pyongyang.
This raises a very serious question: Were
the hijackers real pirates or was this in fact all
a carefully planned retaliation by the North
Korean government against China?
Korean defectors who are familiar with the chain
of command in maritime border protection assert
that the three Chinese fishing boats were seized
by operatives of Pyongyang's General Bureau of
They usually use armed
speed boats that belong to West Sea Base No 2
located in Nampo and secretly enter international
waters to fulfill special missions. Their
speedboats are disguised as mid-size fishing
vessels but equipped with four Russian-made M-400
engines. The General Bureau maritime bases also
conduct infiltration missions against South Korea
and exist both in the East and West Sea.
The initial reports of the attack
testified that the group of captors was wearing
blue uniforms and hats and included several
Chinese-speaking people. However, the involvement
in this particular incident of Chinese criminals
is unlikely. The staff members of General Bureau
of Reconnaissance are fluent in Mandarin because
they are trained to operate in Chinese waters. For
example, the operatives stationed at East Sea Base
No1 are required to speak excellent Japanese.
Could the General Bureau of Reconnaissance
suddenly decide on the capture of Chinese fishing
boats simply to earn money?
foreign nationals and their property would
inevitably create a diplomatic problem and could
not be done without the approval of the
authorities. Discipline in the North Korean
military is stern and hierarchy is thoroughly
observed. While scheming with the authorities to
demand money from the captured Chinese sailors,
they must have intended to express discontent at
something else. What message did the North Korean
authorities want to convey to Beijing?
most likely scenario was that the abduction of
Chinese fishermen was carefully planned by the new
leadership in Pyongyang in retaliation for China's
continuing criticism of the North Korea's April
rocket launch and ongoing preparations for another
In addition, Beijing
recently permitted a number of North Korean
defectors to leave China to seek asylum in South
Korea that could not but anger the North Korean
leaders who wanted to teach China a lesson.
The timing of the incident (May 8-21) also
supports this hypothesis. It coincided with the
joint US-South Korea aerial exercises Thunder Max,
which were held between May 7-18. While these
exercises take place on an annual basis, this
year's activities were of a particularly massive
These war games in the skies of
southwestern Korea not only send a warning message
to the North but also to China, serving to further
strengthen the security cooperation between
Beijing and Pyongyang. Paradoxically, joint
US-South Korean military exercises equip North
Korea with extra leverage over China.
Beijing, however, is refusing to link the
dots. So far the Chinese Foreign Ministry is
labeling the incident a "fisheries case" and
searching for traces of criminal gangs in Dandong.
Clearly, Beijing is trying to soft-pedal
the incident and avoid open antagonism with its
long-term regional ally. All signs indicate that
this incident will not negatively affect the
strong political ties between the two countries.
In a situation where the Chinese
government at all costs prefers to maintain the
status quo on the Korean Peninsula, such a minor
incident will not force Beijing to stop supporting
the North, a buffer state which separates its own
borders from the US-allied South Korea.
After all, the Cold War in the region is
continuing, Northeast Asia remains divided and
paranoid, and its main front line still divides
the Korean Peninsula.
Petrov (PhD), is a lecturer in Korean studies
at the School of Languages and Cultures, The
Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, The
University of Sydney.
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