Left Behind

'New York Times' Freelancer Languishes in Chinese Jail

Since early December, Chinese officials have been on a 100-day campaign to ferret out the estimated 300,000 North Koreans hiding in border towns and send them back to their nation. In the first month, authorities deported an estimated 30,000 defectors by randomly checking IDs on streets and raiding safe houses. At least 13,000 more wait in detention centers. Officials even allowed a few thousand North Korean personnel inside China to sniff out defectors and drag them back across the border by the truckload. All this because asylum seekers have been crashing the gates of foreign embassies in Beijing, embarrassing the Chinese.

China signed a 1951 UN agreement to review refugees for political asylum, but its leaders now fear that the trickle of North Koreans will become a flood, creating a humanitarian crisis. Human rights activists counter that once the North Koreans are returned, they will inevitably face prison camp and possible execution. "Up until now, there has been some occasional leniency on those forcibly sent back to North Korea," Chun Ki Won, a nongovernmental organization worker who was also part of the escape plan, told the Times in one of its two articles mentioning Seok's arrest. "But currently, there is no trial, no legal procedure when they are sent to the political prison camps."

Humanitarian groups such as Doctors Without Borders have reported that Chinese officials expel, detain, and sometimes even torture refugees and aid workers. Harassment of journalists who cover the defectors' plight has worsened during the crackdown, said the Committee to Protect Journalists, which has issued a letter calling for Seok's release. Last year, authorities forced their way into the office of a South Korean correspondent and confiscated important documents.

Jae-Hyun Seok faces seven years in prison.
photo: courtesy the Seok family
Jae-Hyun Seok faces seven years in prison.

It is uncertain how Seok is being treated. Times colleagues have heard rumors the police might have harmed him. Ten of the 48 defectors Seok went to cover have been deported to North Korea. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs wouldn't say if those still waiting in detention centers will follow the same fate.

Shin and other aid workers have been organizing candlelight vigils in Tokyo, Seoul, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C., protesting the detention of the boat people. Three weeks ago, Kang traveled to China to beg for her husband's freedom; his government-appointed attorney advised her to keep quiet and not go to the press.

Shin said he hasn't given up, but says the boat crossing was a mistake. Signaling an online Voice interview was over, Shin said: "I'm sorry for being a little hysterical. I'm being watched, my e-mail is tapped. I must go."

"China Sentences New York Times Freelance Photojournalist" by Cathy Hong

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