On Tuesday, March 18, a New York Times freelance photographer named Jae-Hyun Seok marked the start of his third month behind bars in China. His arrest while documenting an escape attempt by North Korean refugees drew scant attention, even in his own newspaper. Last week, Chinese officials stepped up the pressure and transferred him from a detention center to a high-security prison.
Seok has been charged with human trafficking for what his colleagues, friends, and relatives say was the simple exercise of his craft. He faces a sentence of five to seven years.
His story began in the chilly morning hours on January 18, when he waited with about 40 anxious North Korean refugees in China’s Yantai port. Seok wasn’t on assignment that day for the Times, and despite having been a leading photojournalist for the paper in Asia, he wasn’t a staffer. The refugees involved were about to board two fishing vessels that would lead them to asylum in South Korea and Japan—the same circuitous, transnational route taken by others fleeing North Korea’s military regime. Instead, armed police seized the boats and arrested the group, including Seok. Realizing he might be interrogated, he pitched his cell phone into the inky waters so his contacts would be untraceable.
Given that China leads the world in jailing reporters, his predicament is nothing new, but the government there has held him longer than any other foreign journalist. That may be due to political pressure from North Korea, which wants its neighbor and fellow Communist country China to block the path of refugees. Tension between the U.S. and North Korea over leader Kim Jong-Il’s nuclear weapons program has served only to draw the lines more starkly.
For someone in Seok’s predicament, a major public outcry offers the best, and perhaps only, hope. The arrest of then freelance Times photographer Tyler Hicks while on assignment in Chechnya in 1999 made international news; he was freed after two nights. Where then is the uproar over Seok?
“When journalists are on assignment and they’re in trouble with the law, the media often tries to do whatever they can,” said Sophie Beach, of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). “But if they’re not on assignment, they don’t have their newspapers backing them up.”
Times staffers like Jim Brooke, a foreign correspondent, have worked behind the scenes rallying for Seok’s release. But the Times PR office remains tight-lipped, except to say the paper is concerned and has contacted CPJ.
More surprising is the silence of his own nation. When CPJ asked the South Korean embassy in Washington to ask what it had on Seok’s behalf, they got no reply. Concerned with smoothing out a prickly relationship with North Korea, new president Roh Moo-hyun’s administration has all but smothered critical coverage of Kim Jong-Il and China.
“It’s frustrating,” said Seok’s friend and professor Yong-Hwan Lee. “Family and friends had demonstrations for him. His own mother has stood outside the Chinese embassy in Seoul every day for the last six weeks, calling for his release. But the media does nothing because the South Korean government is afraid of rocking the boat. This is the democracy we’re living in.”
The Times recruited Seok as a freelancer three years ago. Northeast Asia bureau chief Howard W. French said he was impressed with Seok’s impeccable journalism, and soon had him photographing “the overwhelming majority” of the assignments based in South Korea. “He’s a tremendously sympathetic guy, real soft-spoken, very humane and genuine,” French said.
Seok worked closely with Brooke, shooting the contentious events of last year, including the anti-American rallies in South Korea, the presidential elections, and the arms crisis. Seok was moved by the North Korean defectors he met in northeastern China and South Korea, by their stories of abject poverty, forced infanticides, and mass executions in North Korean prison camps, and desperate flights to China, where they lived as indentured servants and sex slaves. “Like most South Koreans, he had zero exposure to what was going on with the North Koreans,” Brooke said. “But then largely through these stories, his eyes went wide open.”
Soon, Seok decided to follow the lives of North Korean refugees along the Chinese border. “He wanted to tell people the unimaginable cruelty that North Koreans endure,” said his wife, Hye-Won Kang. He proposed a photography project to Cecilia Bohan, New York Times photo editor, who said she would consider his photos when he got back. Douglas Shin, a human rights activist and a ringleader of the escape, agreed to let him be an observer. Preoccupied with the plan, Seok stopped replying to Brooke’s e-mails except for one hasty response: “I am on the way to Yanbien. I think you know what I’m doing. I will be back in Seoul ASAP. If you are curious, contact Doug Shin.”
The mission was to be the first of many boat crossings. Financed by eight international aid groups, Shin and other rights activists purchased two fishing boats for about $10,000 through a Chinese intermediary on January 14. One was supposed to head to Chuja Island, South Korea, the other to Sasebo, Japan. Tipped off, Chinese officials began raiding safe houses.
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.
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