Beijing has long been about the closest thing to an ally that Pyongyang enjoys, but the seizure of a Chinese fishing boat by unidentified North Koreans has threatened to put an already tenuous relationship on even shakier ground.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei was quoted by The New York Times as making it fairly clear that his government was not happy about the development.
China, he said, is "demanding that it properly deal with the matter as quickly as possible and effectively safeguard the legitimate rights of the Chinese fishermen, as well as the safety of their lives and property."
The incident comes close on the heels of North Korea conducting a series of test firings of "short-range projectiles," including short-range missiles and possibly rocket artillery over the weekend.
According to The Times:
"The announcement about the captured boat promptly drew an outcry from Chinese media and citizens online, some of whom have already expressed increasing impatience with North Korea over its nuclear weapons ambitions and threats to the region. ...
"The Chinese media reports said that the boat was seized May 5, with 16 men aboard, and that the North Korean authorities demanded payment of 600,000 renminbi, or about $98,000, to release them and the vessel, apparently on the grounds that it was fishing in waters claimed by North Korea. The deadline for payment was Sunday, the Beijing Times newspaper said.
"The owner of the boat [Yu Xuejun] drew public attention to its capture through messages on Tencent Weibo, a Chinese microblog service. And on Monday he issued a message saying that he feared his crew had been beaten."
Germany's Deutsche Welle has gone so far as to suggest that China is "quietly encouraging regime change" in North Korea. The network last week quoted unnamed intelligence sources as saying that Beijing had a contingency plan in case North Korean leader Kim Jong Un should lose control of his country; the plan reportedly involved Kim's older brother, Kim Jong Nam, taking the reins.
Deutsche Welle says:
"At 42, Kim Jong-nam is the oldest son of Kim Jong-il, the dictator who ruled North Korea with an iron fist for 17 years until his sudden death in December 2011. Kim Jong-nam had been expected to assume the leadership after his father's death, but fell from favor spectacularly in 2001 when he was detained with two women and a boy aged 4 at Tokyo's Narita International Airport travelling on a forged Dominican Republic passport. He later admitted that he had wanted to visit Disneyland.
"He subsequently lived in Macau and Beijing, under the close watch of the Chinese authorities.
"The reports suggest that after Kim Jong-nam is installed in Pyongyang, his brother will be permitted to go into exile, probably in China."