North Korean authorities detained 15 Russians and two South Korean citizens onboard a fishing vessel last week and are yet to release them, the two countries confirmed on Wednesday.
The Russian Embassy in Pyongyang said in a statement that the detainees were arrested on board the Xian Hai Lin 8 fishing vessel for “violating the rules of entry and stay in the DPRK territory.”
“Onboard were 17 crew members, of whom 15 were citizens of the Russian Federation, two more were citizens of the Republic of Korea,” the statement read. “Relevant authorities are now looking into the matter. It is important to ensure the safety of the crew, which includes three residents of the Sakhalin region. We will try to do our best to solve the matter in the promptest and most favorable way.”
An official from South Korea’s Ministry of Unification (MOU) also confirmed the detention of two of their citizens and that they had contacted their North Korean counterparts to discuss the issue.
“We understand that our citizens are safe,” the MOU said. “The government will do its best to confirm the safety of our people and ensure that positive measures can be taken through the consultation channel with the North and close coordination with the Russian authorities.”
The ship, owned by the Russia-based Northeast Fishing Company, reportedly left Sokcho port in far-east Russia at around 7 pm local time last Tuesday. The vessel began drifting towards North Korea’s territorial waters due to an engine problem.
According to the company’s deputy director, Sergei Sedler, the vessel was fishing for crabs when it was detained around 100 kilometers from the North Korean border. The vessel is currently docked at a port in the North Korean city of Wonsan.
“At 4 am on July 17, border guards landed right on the ship and turned off all communications,” Sedler was cited as saying by Russia’s Kommersant newspaper, adding that his crew had been subjected to “harsh” conditions. “There is no ventilation, the temperature is 30–35 degrees,” he said. “They are interrogated and searched twice a day.”
The incident will likely test the diplomatic relations of both countries with North Korea. Despite the two sides technically being at war, Pyongyang has attempted to improve relations with the South over the past year, with South Korean President Moon Jae-in eager to engage in dialogue with the communist regime.
North Korea and Russia share a much warmer relationship. Moscow has long provided critical political and economic support to Kim Jong-un’s dictatorship. However, Russian coast guards are known to frequently detain North Korean fishermen entering their own territorial waters, with many of them sentenced to prison.