Has China Been Fishing in Troubled Waters?

May 18th, 2012

By Dan Miller

She may have critters on her plate that will be hard to eat with or without chopsticks.

Dalian fishing boatOn May 8th, four Chinese boats from the port of Dalian were fishing about fifty miles from the Chinese coast when they were “hijacked” by North Koreans. One vessel was released but the remaining three, along with their Chinese crew of twenty-nine, continue to be held for “ransom” in North Korea. As I have observed before, North Korea is a black hole from which little light escapes and what does is hopelessly filtered, reflected and refracted. The most reliable information sources appear to be defectors from North Korea who have managed to make it to the South and to retain and cultivate contacts in the North; official governmental Departments of Information appear to be among the less reliable.

The circumstances of and motivations for the North Korean “hijackings” remain unclear.

It was not clear whether the gunmen were connected with the North Korean government or were rogue mariners. At a briefing on Thursday, Hong Lei, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, declined to discuss details but said officials were in touch with their North Korean counterparts. “We hope this problem will be appropriately solved as soon as possible,” he said.

However, this article at the Daily NK (one of the few sources of often accurate information) suggests that it was done by military vessels from a North Korean General Bureau of Reconnaissance maritime base. According to the article,

The claim was made by Choi, a defector who spent 20 years as an infiltration operations instructor with what is now the General Bureau prior to his defection. According to Choi, the testimony of one Chinese vessel captain, added to his own knowledge of North Korea’s West Sea defenses, makes it clear that this was the work of the General Bureau.

The captain of Liaodanyu No. 23527, which was fishing alongside the boats that were seized, testified that the North Korean vessel which took the Liaodanyu No. 23528 was a fast moving military speedboat, and that there were four to five people on board wearing blue uniforms and hats.

On this, Choi said, “Secretly entering international waters or those of another country for a brief spell and capturing a boat is the kind of special mission intrinsic to the maritime bases of the Special Bureau of Reconnaissance.”

“General Bureau maritime bases which conduct infiltration missions against South Korea exist both in the East and West Sea, and the West Sea base is at Nampo,” he went on. “The base has around ten combat speedboats disguised as mid-size fishing vessels, and they perform operations like seizing fishing boats and maritime infiltrations.”

According to the One Korea blog, the Chinese boats were accosted and then

forced at gunpoint to sail into North Korean waters…. One boat was released immediately for reasons that remain unclear, while the three other ship owners have been negotiating for the return of their vessels and crew. They said North Koreans were demanding up to $65,000 for the return of each ship.

“We are really worried about the lives of our crew,” said one of the owners, Sun Caihui, in a telephone interview Thursday. He described the boat that accosted his ship as a small but well-armed military vessel.

“The kidnapper’s ship is definitely from the North Korean military,” he said.

“They were wielding guns, so the fisherman didn’t dare resist,” another ship owner, Zhang Dechang, was quoted as telling the Chinese newspaper Global Times. He said he had spoken to his captain by satellite telephone and was concerned about the conditions for the captured crew: “My captain told me that the fisherman were crammed into a tiny cabin with food supplies cut off.”

If there was in fact North Korean military involvement, as seems likely, it raises questions about whether higher authorities had approved the capture and, if so, how highly placed they were and why they approved it. Here is one view reported in another Daily NK article of the same date:

Although the Chinese authorities are actively involved in working to resolve the case, the North has taken a largely uncooperative stance. As such, Pyongyang seems to be sending Beijing a message. That message may be that the North is unhappy with the willingness of China to engage in China-Japan-South Korea FTA negotiations, or may reflect dissatisfaction with China’s recent treatment of defectors.

In particular, given the compelling evidence that it was the work of the General Bureau of Reconnaissance, an entity carefully overseen from near the top of the Chosun Workers’ Party, it is regarded as likely that the North Korean authorities gave tacit consent to the plan at the very least.

Lee Tae Hwan of the Sejong Institute explained to Daily NK this afternoon, “This does not seem to be a case of pirates seizing a vessel just to earn money. The North Korean authorities are able to leave a political message for the Chinese in it.”

Professor Yun Deok Min of Korea National Diplomatic Academy agreed, saying, “It could be an indirect expression of discontent at China’s sending of defectors to South Korea.”

Here is another view:

Conversely, there are some who simply see it as a standalone case of a military unit seizing three vessels for ransom to earn foreign currency to fund their own survival.

Park Young Ho of Korea Institute of National Unification commented to Daily NK, “There is no political purpose here at all. Simply, one military unit did it to get the ransom because they have been told to look after themselves.”

The notion that the capture was officially approved and intended to send a message to China seems more likely realistic; if not, why has North Korea not arranged their return after eight days of captivity? Those in the North Korean military who cause small ruptures or even bruises, or whose actions seem likely to do so, can face short and unpleasant futures; so can members of their families.

That North Korea intended to send a message to China is also supported by the manner in which China is dealing with a Korean human rights activist from South Korea, Kim Young-hwan.  Mr. Kim had been arrested by Chinese authorities in China at the request of the North Korean National Security Agency (NSA). According to information said to have been obtained from “a Shinuiju [NSA] source by Choi Seong Yong, the president of the NGO ‘Family Assembly Abducted to North Korea,”

“Under orders from Pyongyang, Shinuiju NSA is strongly urging them to turn Kim Young Hwan over to them,” Choi continued. However, “China, concerned by the fact that Kim Young Hwan is quite a big figure, took the step of immediately informing the South Korean government of his detention so that North Korea couldn’t lay a finger on him.

According to Choi, if someone North Korea has listed as dangerous enters China, this information is normally passed on to the North.

This suggests that the North Korean NSA originally requested confirmation of Kim’s arrival in China, which China promptly provided. Thereafter, the NSA requested that the Chinese arrest and detain Kim, which they did six days later along with three other South Koreans. North Korea then requested the transfer of Kim to the NSA, but the Chinese government refused.

Although China had, until recently, been “repatriating” defectors from North Korea she ceased a short while ago. I am unaware of any Chinese transfer in recent years of a South Korean to North Korea; for China to transfer Mr. Kim to North Korea would likely raise South Korean hackles dramatically while making North Korea more comfortable with China than China deems useful. It seems probable that China wishes to keep North Korea as off-balance as she deems useful.

Mr. Kim is being detained in China without access to an attorney.

The South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MOFAT) yesterday revealed that Kim Young Hwan will continue to be detained without legal representation, saying, “On the 15th, Liaoning Province Ministry of State Security formally reported to our consul its refusal of a request for consultation not with the consul, but with a lawyer.”

The Chinese Ministry of State Security gave no reason for rejecting the request other than “in accordance with Chinese domestic law.” To date, Kim has received only 30 minutes with the Shenyang consular representative (on April 26th).

China has tried to walk a fine line, or several of them, because she needs regime stability in North Korea; the alternative would involve hungry North Korean locusts “undocumented migrants” swarming massively across her borders.  Probably of lesser importance, she also needs to maintain tolerable relations with South Korea for economic purposes while simultaneously avoiding military conflict in the South China Sea and remaining in the good graces of a United States — while China becomes more militarily powerful and the United States has become less so and is likely to become even less powerful soon — as she continues to undermine one of the few effective sanctions against North Korea, luxury goods for those within the regime.

Chen GuangchengRelations between the United States and China were recently strained by a stay at the U.S. Embassy by Chinese human rights activist Chen Guangcheng and by associated efforts of the United States on his behalf to affect the mantle of freedom or at least to make the problem go away.

One of China’s main official newspapers accused blind dissident Chen Guangcheng on Friday of serving as a “tool” for American subversion of Communist Party power and called the U.S. ambassador a backpack-wearing, Starbucks-sipping troublemaker.

The commentary in the Beijing Daily was the strongest Chinese state media condemnation yet of the U.S. administration in a standoff over Chen, who sought protection in the U.S. embassy in Beijing, then left, and has now said he regrets that choice and wants exile in the United States. …

Chen and his demands for protection, it said, “fully demonstrate just how desperate American politicians are in sparing no effort to cause trouble for Chinese society.”

Are these circumstances related? Probably. Among the few things we may have learned (and if we haven’t already we should have) about China is that she acts solely in her own best interests as she perceives them. Those interests have much to do with her need to maintain her own regimes’ stability and hence to retain the support of those favoring and favored by the regime. To a greater extent than her neighbor, North Korea, China needs to dampen popular disfavor. The fishing boat incident seems to have received popular notice in China and there appear to be upsets at China’s mild reaction.

Many ordinary Chinese have tended to forgive North Korea’s erratic behavior in recent years, believing that the country should change but also seeing, to some extent, a mirror image of the China of four decades ago. But the abduction reports are stirring ire. A post on the microblogging site Sina Weibo, one of more than 250,000 on the topic, accuses Beijing of soft-pedaling the incident. “North Korean pirates kidnap Chinese fishing boats and lots of Chinese fishermen, isn’t that an attack on Chinese sovereignty?” asked Chuangwgewanren. “To lightly call that a ‘fisheries case’ [as China recently did] is heartless for China’s international dignity.”

While the nature of the May 8 incident is unclear, China routinely issues strong protests over comparable altercations when they involve Japanese, South Korean, Vietnamese or Philippine fishing vessels. [Insert with link added.]

China could experience difficulty were she to yield to North Korea and North Korea probably realizes that even if China has not told her — as she probably has.  While extraordinarily mercurial and hence difficult to predict, North Korea will probably find some more or less suitable way to return the Chinese crew and the fishing boats while meting out acceptable if mild punishments for the lower ranking North Korean officials involved.

As for the United States, we should not become involved in the North Korean maritime provocation against China or, for that matter, in the Chinese Kim Young-hwan provocation against South Korea. We need to be aware of such matters, however, if we are have any reasonable chance of understanding the relationship between China and North Korea and how best to use it to our own advantage. To the extent that China distances herself from North Korea, we are likely to have better hands to play in our ongoing poker game with China; that’s worth at least something.

(This article was also posted at Dan Miller’s Blog.)

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