Reporters Without Borders today protested against the two-year prison sentenced passed by a Chinese court on South Korean freelance photojournalist Jae-Hyun Seok yesterday after it convicted him of "trafficking in human beings" for covering an attempt to help North Korean refugees flee by boat from China to South Korea and Japan.
The organisation called on foreign minister Li Zhaoxing to obtain Seok’s immediate and unconditional release and the dropping of all the charges against him, which it said were designed to prevent press coverage of a matter of international importance.
Seok, who worked for the New York Times and the South Korean magazine Geo, was tried by a court in Yantai (in Shandong province, opposite the Korean peninsula), where he has been detained for the past four months. The court also sentenced him to a fine of 5,000 yuans (625 dollars) and expulsion from China after serving his prison sentence. He has ten days to appeal.
He was arrested on 18 January as he was covering an attempt to help North Korean refugees reach South Korea and Japan by boat. The Chinese police set the refugees a trap by giving them to understand that they would help them leave China. When they were about to embark, the police intercepted them and took them to special detention centres to await forced repatriation to North Korea. Seok was arrested in the course of this police operation.
Little is known about the conditions of his detention. Since his arrest, only his lawyer and the South Korean consul have been allowed to see him. Neither his wife, other family members or his colleagues have been able to see him since his arrest.
For the first two months, he was held in a detention centre without being charged. He was finally charged with trafficking in human beings on 3 March. The South Korean government disputed the charge the same day and demanded his release, without ever getting a response.
The Chinese authorities crack down hard on any foreign attempts to help the thousands of North Koreans who try flee their country by crossing the border into China. The issue has become especially sensitive after Beijing reached an agreement with Pyongyang whereby it undertook to repatriate the North Koreans. Journalists who try to cover the subject are usually detained briefly for questioning and then sent home.