Probe begins into N Korean capture of Chinese crews

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 May, 2012, 12:00am


Beijing fishery authorities have begun an investigation into the capture of Chinese fishermen in the Yellow Sea by North Koreans that triggered bilateral diplomatic tensions, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said yesterday.

In announcing the investigation, ministry spokesman Hong Lei said the government was taking the incident seriously.

Some of the 28 fishermen aboard three boats taken on May 8 said armed North Koreans, dressed in army uniforms, had falsified the co-ordinates of their ship during the capture, to indicate that it took place in North Korean waters rather than Chinese waters.

The Chinese boat captains also said they were forced to admit that they entered North Korean waters unlawfully.

Wang Lijie , captain of one of the three vessels that were held for nearly two weeks before being released last weekend, told China Central Television (CCTV) yesterday that North Korean authorities forced him to sign a blank document.

He said it was not until soon before their release that he was told it was a letter confessing they had entered the waters illegally.

The letter was written in Korean, but Wang said he saw the North Koreans had changed the co-ordinates of the capture from 123-57E to 124-02E, less than a degree to the east and just inside North Korean waters.

Although China and North Korea have not established an official boundary in the East China Sea, maritime authorities of the two countries have mutually regarded longitude 124 degrees east as an 'internal control line', according to the captured fishermen.

The captains of the other two ships said they were also presented with similar documents. One of them, Zhu Chuang , said he resisted, believing that data stored in his ship's satellite navigation system would prove they were in Chinese waters.

'They tried to force me to sign, but I never did,' he told CCTV.

Almost every Chinese fishing vessel at sea is equipped with navigation devices receiving satellite signals. The system, developed by the People's Liberation Army, allows captains to know their whereabouts with a very low margin of error.

But upon their release, Zhu and the other captains found that all data stored in their computers had been erased.

Han Qiang , the third captain, told the Dongfang Daily that they were held on a small island just offshore from mainland North Korea at co-ordinates 125-02E, 38-39N.

Han said he was quite certain that they were held by formal military forces, because their guards all wore North Korean marine uniforms and every gunboat flew a North Korean flag.

Military officers informed the fishermen that they were released only because their capture had negatively affected relations with China.

'They handed each of us a cigarette, recorded it on video and told us to go home,' Han was quoted by the newspaper as saying.

The hostage-takers initially demanded 400,000 yuan (HK$490,500) for each vessel, but later lowered the ransom to 300,000 yuan each. The ship owners had not paid by last Thursday's deadline.

The owners said a slow response from Beijing forced them and the relatives of the crew members to release information about the incident on the web, where the media quickly picked up on the news, triggering a public outcry.