On the morning of March 19, the guards at Wei Fang prison in eastern China barged into Jae Hyun Seok’s cell without notice. The freelance New York Times photographer was 14 months into a two-year sentence for human trafficking—or more accurately, for photographing North Korean refugees trying to escape China for asylum in neighboring countries.
“They took everything out of my cell and checked my body to see if I was hiding anything,” the photographer recalled for the Voice. “It took two hours. At first I thought I was in trouble. But then I was moved to another room, where there were 10 officers. One guy called me in and gave me a release form. That was how I found out. They gave me the release form. I was so shocked, so exhausted, I didn’t even realize I was crying.”
He was free.
If Seok had been on assignment or if he were a U.S. citizen when police arrested him in January 2003 in Yantai, a port city across the Yellow Sea from South Korea, he might have been detained for a few hours, interrogated, and then released. But China sentenced him in May 2003 to two years in prison, despite protests from human rights and journalist groups who claimed that he was covering a news event instead of engineering one. Housed in a frigid cell with 40 other inmates, the South Korean photographer suffered frostbite, lost 30 pounds from a poor diet of boiled dumplings, and endured joint problems because he had no room to either lie down or exercise. Thrown into a regular penitentiary instead of China’s more lenient prisons for foreigners, Seok worked shoulder to shoulder with hardened Chinese criminals who labored from dawn to dusk crafting artificial flowers. He was resigned to his fate.
Then, with no prior notice, authorities quietly released him to fly to Seoul with his wife, Kang.
“When I was in prison, I would dream about being in Korea every night,” Seok told the Voice from a hospital in Daegoo, South Korea, four days after his release. “Then I would wake up surrounded by prison walls. I still think this is a dream. I hope I don’t wake up.” Seok expressed gratitude toward his supporters, but added, “I don’t think the [South Korean] government and journalists acted quickly enough. They would timidly ask, ‘Please let him go.’ They needed to do something different.”
The Committee to Protect Journalists said Seok’s time in prison has been the harshest penalty ever doled out to a foreign journalist in China. “It’s wonderful that he’s free, but it’s really been a Pyrrhic victory,” said Stephen Gilbert, head of Resolution 217, a nonprofit group launched to campaign for Seok’s release. “He spent 14 months in jail when he shouldn’t have been in jail at all.”
China may have granted his release as a “gift” to coincide with President Hu Jintao’s visit to South Korea in early March. The two countries’ fragile relationship may have delayed Seok’s release in the first place. South Korea, reluctant to stir up diplomatic tensions with China because the two countries are expanding trade, didn’t bring up Seok’s case to Chinese officials until it drew international attention. China no doubt didn’t want its refugee problem exposed by journalists. Some 300,000 impoverished North Koreans have crossed over to China to escape oppression and famine. Instead of granting them asylum, China has deemed them illegal migrants and has repatriated them to North Korea, where they are thought to face death camps.
On the day of Seok’s arrest, he was covering a covert boat-crossing of more than 80 North Korean refugees from China to Chuja Island, South Korea, and Sasebo, Japan, where they could gain asylum. With the refugees and two South Korean activists, Seok traveled by train to Yantai, where they waited at the port for two rented fishing boats. But Chinese police apprehended Seok and the activists and seized the boats. Seok assumes that the refugees were sent back to North Korea.
“The foreign press has always covered the North Korean plight, and I wanted to do it from a South Korean’s perspective since we are one nation,” Seok said. “It was something I believed in emotionally. I guess I didn’t succeed.”
Seok was certain he would be released by Chinese officials in a matter of hours. “My Korean counsel kept saying, ‘You’ll be home soon. Just wait a bit longer.’ So I would wait and wait,” he said. “It took forever for my trial, but when it came, I expected to get out, and I was shocked when they sentenced me. Then my counsel said wait for the second trial. Then the second verdict came and they upheld it. I was even more shocked. After that, I gave up. I decided that this was my fate.”
Seok was denied phone calls, visiting hours, writing material, and books—except for a Bible his lawyer gave him. The only person in the Chinese prison who could even speak his language was a burly Chinese-born ethnic Korean convict, whose legs and wrists were chained to the floor because he had been sentenced to death for four counts of murder.
“I talked to him because he was fluent in Korean,” Seok recalled. “We shared a lot of things together. He would ask about God, and I would read him passages from the Bible. He was just curious. He always told me, ‘You’ll get out before they get me.’ But then they executed him. That was the last person I could talk to.” Seok paused and added, “After that, I started talking to myself.”