North Koreans holding Chinese boat for ransom

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Armed North Koreans are holding a Chinese fishing boat and its crew for ransom despite the protests of Chinese officials, the boat’s owner said Monday.

The boat’s seizure — which occurred early this month but was revealed by Chinese officials only Sunday night — is the latest dust-up between North Korea and China, which Pyongyang has long relied on to prop up its economy and defend it from international censure efforts by the United States and others.

The vessel’s owner, Yu Xuejun, was not on board when the boat was seized. He has posted increasingly desperate messages about the situation on his microblog in the past two days. In the latest post Monday morning, Yu described a call he received from North Koreans, who demanded ransom and then handed the phone to his boat’s captain.

“His voice was trembling. I could feel he was very afraid,” Yu wrote about his captain. “I suspected that my crew has been mistreated. I can’t imagine what North Korea side could do.”

Chinese officials at the embassy in Pyongyang have asked North Korea to release the vessel and crew and ensure their safety, China said in a statement posted late Sunday on the Foreign Ministry’s official microblog.

The statement was the first public acknowledgment by China that the boat had been taken.

Beijing has shown increasing signs of frustration with North Korea in recent months, ever since the renegade country ignored China’s pleas not to carry out a recent nuclear test.

Sensing an opening amid Chinese frustrations, the Obama administration is trying to push Beijing to take a much stronger stance against North Korea than it has in the past.

Chinese officials, who value stability above all else, are unlikely to abandon North Korea anytime soon. But state-run newspapers in China have increasingly published stories questioning the upside of China’s ties with Pyongyang. And earlier this month, the state-run Bank of China suspended transactions with the North Korea Foreign Trade Bank, in what appeared to be a calculated expression of China’s unhappiness.

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