After languishing five months in a Chinese detention center, New York Times freelance photojournalist Jae Hyun Seok has been sentenced to two years in jail for human trafficking. Last January, Seok was photographing 40 North Korean refugees attempting to flee China to Japan and South Korea aboard two fishing boats. They were caught and detained by Chinese border officials. The Beijing Foreign Embassy has ignored Seok’s family and colleagues in South Korea who claim he was merely documenting the escape.
At this point, China has never convicted and sentenced a foreign correspondent, though the nation leads as the world’s largest jailer of its own reporters.
Although the Times spilled two page’s worth of ink on Jayson Blair, they’ve reacted slowly to Seok’s case. The paper published an editorial about Seok on May 30, calling his sentencing a “grave injustice.” But some consider their actions too little too late.
“It would have been very helpful if The New York Times initially made an official statement. That would have caused a public outcry, which could have prevented this from happening,” said Sophie Beach of Committee to Protect Journalists.
The South Korean government, concerned about making diplomatic inroads with North Korea and China, has also downplayed Seok’s case, even as Seok’s supporters tirelessly rallied for him.
Approximately 300,000 North Korean refugees have fled to Northeastern China in order to escape the poverty and repression of Kim Jong Il’s regime. But North Korean ally China refuses to grant them asylum and forcibly repatriates them back to North Korea, where they inevitably face prison camp and possibly death. The fugitives’ only hopes are international activists, who illegally shepherd them from China via a circuitous transnational route to South Korea, where they’re granted asylum.
Sympathetic to their plight, Jae Hyun Seok wanted to cover the refugee crisis as a personal project. While Seok waited with the refugees aboard one of the vessels in Yantai Port, Chinese officials, tipped off by a turncoat, apprehended the operation.
Seok has filed an appeal, and he will have a second trial in a few months. “We hope that he will be released with pressure,” said Times photo editor Cecilia Bohan. “We think that there’s still hope for that.”
“Left Behind: New York Times Freelancer Languishes in Chinese Jail” by Cathy Hong