South Korean freelance photojournalist Seok Jae-hyun is scheduled to be released from prison in China in only two days, a spokesperson for the group Reporters Without Borders (Reporters Sans Frontières) confirms this morning from Paris. Vincent Brossel, head of the Asia-Pacific Desk of RSF, said this morning, "We can confirm that the South Korean Consul in Beijing, Lee Young-baek, told Seok's wife, Kang Hye-won, that he will be released on Friday, March 19. She is flying there to get her husband back home. We are really happy with this news." RSF said the Consul called Kang on Tuesday with the news.
Photo courtesy of Geo Magazine
"After more than 15 months in jail, Seok will be released mainly because of South Korean and international pressures," Brossel toldNews Photographermagazine. "Finally, Beijing recognized that he was a media professional merely doing his duty. We hope that South Korean and foreign journalists will not stop covering the terrible situation of North Korean refugees in China, because of Seok's long jailing." The group had launched an online petition calling for the photojournalist's release and the dropping of all charges. RSF presented the petition to the Chinese embassy in France during Chinese president Hu Jintao's official visit to Paris on January 27-28.
Seok, whose photographs appeared regularly in The New York Times and GEO magazine, was arrested January 18, 2003, while covering North Korean refugees as they attempted to flee China on boats bound for South Korea and Japan. He was documenting the plight of North Korean refugees in China, a story that has openly irritated Chinese officials. "The conviction means that he will not be allowed back into China and he will lose all of his cameras," photojournalist Nayan Sthankiya said. Sthankiya, a freelancer based in South Korea, is the cofounder of the group Resolution 217 that was formed specifically to win the release of Seok from Chinese prison. Sthankiya is traveling to China today or tomorrow to be there when Seok is released from prison.
Earlier this year the Shandong Superior People's Court in Shandong Province rejected an appeal by Seok to overturn his conviction on charges of "trafficking in persons." After the rejected appeal the court said Seok was to finish his two-year sentence. The original verdict on May 22 included a fine of 5,000 Yuans, the confiscation of all his film and cameras, and a lifelong banishment from China at the end of his sentence.
"Seok took the news of the appeal denial very hard," Sthankiya said at the time. "But the Korean Vice Consul has said that there is a possibility of an early release, possibly due to that fact that he is a foreigner and special circumstances."
Terry Eiler, director of the Ohio University School of Visual Communication where Jae received his master's degree in Visual Communications, said this morning when he heard the news, "The faculty and students at Ohio University are overjoyed at the prospects of Jae's release. He is an exceptional visual journalist and a gentleman who has suffered greatly to tell the world a human story." Eiler was one of Jae's former professors at OU. Students there had organized a print auction to raise money for the imprisoned journalist, who is a Korean citizen.
"We're grateful to everyone worldwide who worked so passionately for justice for Jae," John Kaplan said. "The Committee to Protect Journalists, the Overseas Press Club, Reporters Without Borders and especially Resolution 217, the group that was founded to bring a voice to Jae's imprisonment, were all tireless in their call for his release." Kaplan is one of Seok's long-time supporters and friends who worked behind the scenes for his freedom. Kaplan is a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist who is now an associate professor at the University of Florida, teaching photography, design, and international journalism.
Kaplan said Seok "was merely a passionate journalist working to tell an important story. My hope now for Jae is that he will be able to rest for a time, and that he'll be able to retain the heart and soul that helps make his photography so memorable. I hope that he and his wife, Kang, will be able to return to their everyday routine, and to forgive."
When Seok was arrested, so were a South Korean aid worker, two Chinese nationals, and a North Korean who were present during the boatlift operation. They were also sentenced to two to seven years. In August, two South Korean journalists were detained in Shanghai while filming North Korean refugees attempting to gain asylum entering a school run by the Japanese government. They were released and deported from China only three weeks later.