Bafflement is growing over the fate of 29 Chinese fishermen who are being held to ransom in North Korea. Reports now say they were fishing in North Korean waters, but there are conflicting accounts whether they were seized by a military gunboat or by pirates.
Pyongyang has not commented on the incident, and a Chinese government spokesman on Thursday only said Beijing is trying to resolve the matter in cooperation with North Korea and called on Pyongyang to guarantee their rights.
The Beijing News on Thursday quoted one of the owners as saying the captors told the skipper of one of the boats to make four calls on a satellite phone to demand ransom.
Zhang Dechang told the paper he received the first call on May 9. The captive skipper told him the captors wanted 400,000 yuan per ship (around W72 million). The skipper made two more calls on May 11 and 13 and said the captors now lowered the ransom to 300,000 yuan per boat. On May 15, he told Zhang the North Koreans threatened to "get rid" of the boats if he did not send the money.
The owners of the vessels say the captors included both North Koreans and Chinese, which would suggest they are pirates. The captors gave the owners the mobile number of an intermediary in the border town of Dandong to discuss how to send the ransom.
The owners of the trawlers deny the ships violated North Korean territorial waters and presented as evidence the GPS navigational records of one boat that managed to escape.