North Korean Pirates: Are Hijackings Of Chinese Fishing Vessels Retaliation For Sanctions?

Could North Korea be jeopardizing its relationship with one of its most important allies?  After armed North Koreans seized a Chinese fishing boat and its crew on May 5, asking for a generous ransom of nearly $100,000 for the boat and crew's return, it seems as though this may be the case. On May 10, Yu Xuejun, the captain of the fishing boat who was not aboard when it was captured, contacted the Chinese embassy regarding the seizure of his boat and crew. The embassy immediately contacted the North Korean Foreign Ministry, asking for the safe return of the boat and its crew, which according to Chinese media reports, includes 16 men. After speaking to a member of his crew on the phone, Yu states that he believes his men have been abused by their captors.

This is not the first time that North Korea has tested its relationship with the Chinese government. It was only May of last year that three Chinese boats with a total of 29 fishermen aboard were hijacked by North Koreans for the demand of $190,000.  Although released two weeks later, many of the men were stripped of their clothing and had been starved and physically beaten. According to a Liaoning Maritime and Fishery Administration official, these types of incidents keep happening year after year and there is little that can be done to avoid them. 

Though Chinese officials still do not know exactly who is behind this seizure, the owner of the boat, Yu, suspects the captors are involved with the North Korean military. Many suspect that the seizure is a sign of retaliation against the Chinese for supporting UN-imposed sanctions on North Korea regarding nuclear testing. Others suspect that this capture could be a North Korean backlash resulting from the State Bank of China suspending transactions with North Korea earlier this month. However, because North Korea is considered to have a "choreographed and controlled" government, some guess that this seizure is not a strategy of the North Korean government, but rather North Korean pirates looking for an easy way to make money. 

Either way, it looks as though these seizures will put some strain on the relationship between North Korea and China. The real question is how much strain? The Chinese government has already showed its disdain for North Korea's nuclear testing, and as mentioned above, the Chinese state-run bank has recently stopped transactions with North Korea. The director of the Korean Peninsula Research Center believes that the relationship between China and North Korea is "gradually changing from traditional ideological allies to normal bilateral relations." This gives the U.S. government hope that China is gradually taking a stand against North Korea and its nuclear activities. As the country's main provider of fuel and other imports, China has a lot of influence on North Korea. However, China is a long-time ally of North Korea, and this change is not likely to happen overnight.