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Unpredictable

Piracy, prisoners, and missiles: North Korea had a busy weekend

Like an attention-seeking toddler, albeit one with nuclear weapons, North Korea rarely allows much time to go by without some destructive antics. As of this weekend, the unpredictable country appears to be ransoming a Chinese fishing boat, potentially talking with the US about an American prisoner it’s holding as a bargaining chip, and lofting a series of short-range missiles into the ocean near its concerned southern neighbor.

Things are never simple when it comes to North Korea. So what’s going on?

The boat

On Sunday, Beijing called on Pyongyang to release a fishing boat and its 16 crew members who were seized on May 5 by armed North Koreans. The boat’s owner, Yu Xuejun, said he was contacted by the boat’s captors who demanded that 600,000 yuan ($100,000) be delivered to a company registered in China near the North Korean border.

The Chinese embassy “promptly made representations” to the North Koreans for “release of the boat and fishermen as soon as possible,” according to a consular official quoted by the Chinese state news agency. It is not clear whether any ransom has been paid, or whether the boat’s captors are civilians or part of the North Korean military.

This is not the first time North Korea has bitten the hand that feeds it. Three Chinese boats were hijacked in May last year by unidentified captors who demanded $190,000 as ransom. They were eventually returned, but it’s not clear whether money actually changed hands.

The prisoner

As if upsetting one superpower wasn’t enough, North Korean media announced last week that Kenneth Bae, an American evangelica who operated tours in North Korea, had begun a 15-year sentence in a “special prison” for attempting to overthrow the state.

It’s not clear whether North Korea actually arrested Bae because he was carrying a National Geographic video called  “Don’t Tell My Mother I’m in North Korea,” or whether it hoped to use him as a bargaining chip in its dispute with the US. But eyebrows were raised on Monday when Robert King, the US special envoy to North Korea for human rights, abruptly cancelled his trip to South Korea. He may instead be negotiating with the North Koreans to secure Bae’s release, as he did for another detained American in 2011.

The missiles

In perhaps the least baroque North Korean provocation of the week, it resumed tests of its short range missiles into the ocean near South Korea. While it’s obviously never fun to see airborne munitions flying out of a country known to have nuclear weapons, this has happened many times before, most recently in December (paywall). If Kim Jong-un really wants the world’s attention, he may have to try a little harder.

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