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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Let's turn now to how North Korea conducts itself. That country's reclusive regime has few friends on the world stage. Now, six months after the death of leader Kim Jong Il, North Korea is facing growing tensions with one of its few friends: China. This was on display recently when North Korea hijacked several Chinese fishing boats.

NPR's Louisa Lim reports.

LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: Fishing boats returning to their home port in China don't normally make the news.

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UNIDENTIFIED BROADCASTER: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: But last month, it was newsworthy. That's because the three boats, and 28 fishermen, had been detained for almost two weeks in North Korea.

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HAN QIANG: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: We were in Chinese waters, two nautical miles from the sea border, so we thought they couldn't arrest us, ship captain Han Qiang insisted in an interview with local TV. They thought wrong.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS BROADCAST)

ZHU CHUANG: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: Another captain, Zhu Chuang, describes how about 16 North Koreans boarded their boat, all carrying guns, all apparently wearing navy uniforms. They held the men in North Korea, while initially demanding almost $200,000 in ransom. NPR heard more details from ship owner Zhang Dechang. Eight fishermen were held on his boat.

ZHANG DECHANG: (Through translator) They were locked into the ship's hold, which is just 30 square feet. They were let out to work but if they didn't do enough, they got beaten. Sometimes, a man with a gun shot bullets into the air, to scare the fishermen. They were terrified. They were hungry and thirsty. For them, it was like 13 days in hell.

LIM: After negotiation, the fishermen were released without payment. All their belongings were stolen - even their underwear. The boat was stripped clean, Zhang says. He's considering suing the North Korean authorities for his losses.

ZHANG: (Through translator) If nothing else happens, we will prepare to sue. We need to protect our own interests. We were fishing in China's waters when we were taken by North Koreans. So North Korea should take responsibility.

LIM: Beijing has tried to shrug this off as a fisheries incident, emphasizing the safe return of the fishermen. James Reilly, from the University of Sydney, is researching the effect of public opinion on Chinese foreign policy. He says this case is unprecedented.

JAMES REILLY: Because this shipping boat owner, when he didn't get a response through - sort of normal bureaucratic channels, put the information online. So it's really the role of the Internet and the media, which fanned the flames and sort of brought more emotion and anger and attention onto this issue, and then brought it onto the agenda of the top leadership and where - the Foreign Ministry of China.

LIM: It marks a new low in ties. China and North Korea were traditionally supposed to be as close as lips and teeth. Beijing is Pyongyang's biggest source of trade and aid. But Shi Yinhong, from Renmin University in Beijing, says relations have plummeted since the death of North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Il, last December.

SHI YINHONG: (Through translator) The North Korean regime generally has taken quite an unfriendly attitude towards China, and particularly have not informed the Chinese government of any domestic, major steps.

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LIM: The Chinese were not told of Kim Jong Il's death, he says. They weren't present at the state funeral. Shi says Beijing wasn't notified in February, when Pyongyang signed a food aid deal with Washington, which later fell apart. And Beijing wasn't informed in advance about the rocket launch in April, which failed. Shi says North Korea's new leader, Kim Jong Un, is not maintaining the high-level, regular coordination with China promised by his father. Shi characterizes Beijing's mood as moving from expectation to disappointment, to anger.

SHI: (Through translator) If you only look at China's relations with North Korea, the situation is terrible. China has already, over the past 10 years, lost face again and again.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing)

LIM: Crowds of tearful children salute North Korea's young leader, Kim Jong Un, at a rally. By all accounts, he's as much an enigma to Beijing as to the rest of the world. Regardless, China's mantra remains stability first. And hijackings at sea or not, Beijing shows no sign of casting off Pyongyang, though it has urged the North not to conduct a third nuclear test. Beijing has long ignored international condemnation, to provide support for North Korea. Now, it's risking increasing criticism from its own people.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing.

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