South Korean freelance photojournalist Seok Jae-hyun, 34, was released from Wei Fang prison in China today after serving 14 months of a two-year sentence for his conviction on charges of "trafficking in persons." His wife, Kang Hye-won, and friend and fellow photojournalist Nayan Sthankiya, were waiting for him at the airport in Qingdao, China, as police delivered Seok to the tarmac next to his departing flight back to Inch'on, South Korea, which is west of Seoul.
"The Chinese were very particular about not allowing the media to see Jae on Chinese soil. When the police moved him onto the tarmac and everyone started taking pictures, they promptly put him back into the car until the area was cleared," Sthankiya told Stephen Paul Gilbert, who was monitoring Seok's release from back in Vancouver. Sthankiya and Gilbert co-founded the group Resolution 217, which was organized specifically to win the release of Seok from prison.
Chinese police arrested Seok, along with around 80 North Korean refugees, on January 18, 2003, in the port city of Yantai, opposite the Korean peninsula.
Today Gilbert said, "Seok didn't know he was going to be released until 10 in the morning when Kang came to the prison with his plane ticket and clothes for the return trip. She saw him briefly and then wasn't allowed to see him again until he stepped on the plane. Kang went on ahead (to the airport) in a taxi, while Jae followed later in a police van."
"Seok was surprised by the amount of media waiting for him at Inch'on airport. He gave a brief statement, answered a few questions, and then was on his way back to his home town of Daegu," Sthankiya told Gilbert. Sthankiya also said that Seok "looks okay, somewhat wasted and tired, but still all right. He is bald from having his head shaved in prison and his hands are kind of frostbitten, but nevertheless he is in very good spirits."
In a statement released this morning, the press freedom groups Resolution 217 and Reporters Without Borders said, "We welcome the release of South Korean photojournalist Seok Jae-hyun from Wei Fang prison in China today with nothing short of jubilation. While being ecstatic that Seok is back with his family and friends in South Korea, we remain equally outraged he was ever arrested at all. His release is a pyrrhic victory."
"When the Chinese police rounded up the refugees in Yantai, five people were arrested along with them: Seok, Jae Young-hoon (another South Korean, a humanitarian aid worker), two ethnic Chinese-Korean workers, and Jo Yong-su (a North Korean who organized and led the attempted boatlift). The others are still in a different prison than the one Seok was in. No one knows what happened to any of the 80 or so refugees, including Jo Yong-su's family," Gilbert said.
Mr. Chun Ki-won, a Christian minister who works in refugee aid and was arrested for his activities in China in 2001, said most if not all of them had been sent back to North Korea.
Seok, whose photographs appeared regularly in The New York Times and GEO magazine, was arrested 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.
Earlier this year the Shandong Superior People's Court in Shandong Province rejected an appeal by Seok to overturn his conviction. 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.
Vincent Brossel, head of the Asia-Pacific Desk of Reporters Without Borders (Reporters Sans Frontières) in Paris, this week said, "After almost 15 months in jail, Seok will be released mainly because of South Korean and international pressures. 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." RSF 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 around the time of Chinese president Hu Jintao's official visit to Paris on January 27-28.
"The faculty and students at Ohio University are overjoyed at the prospects of Jae's release," said Terry Eiler, director of the Ohio University School of Visual Communication where Seok received his master's degree in Visual Communications. "He is an exceptional visual journalist and a gentleman who has suffered greatly to tell the world a human story." OU students organized a print auction to raise money for the imprisoned journalist, who is a South 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.