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China 19 March 2004

Joy at news of release of South Korean photographer Jae-Hyun Seok

Jae-hyun Seok freed and returns home

South Korean photojournalist Jae-hyun Seok was freed from China’s Weifang prison on 19 March at only a few hours notice, taken to Qingdao airport, where his wife had come to met him, and then deported to South Korea. The media was barred from talking to him before he left.

Many journalists, along with family and friends, greeted him when he arrived in Seoul after 14 months in prison. One said he seemed tired but otherwise in good health. "I don’t really know what to say, but this is a moment I’ve longed for," he said, thanking everyone who had campaigned for his release and criticising the plight of North Korean refugees in China.

Press freedom groups Reporters Without Borders and Resolution217 welcomed news of the imminent release of South Korean photographer Jae-Hyun Seok with great joy.

The South Korean High Consul in Beijing, Lee Young-baek, told Soek’s wife Kang Hye-won on 17 March that her husband would be released from Weifang prison by Chinese authorities on 19 March and allowed to return to South Korea.

Resolution 217, Soek’s support committee, and Reporters Without Borders praised the efforts of his family, friends, lawyers and South Korean diplomats. But both organisations regretted that it had taken the Chinese authorities nearly 14 months to decide to free the journalist, who had done no more than try to inform international public opinion about North Korean refugees in China.

Seok was arrested on 18 January 2003 while covering an attempted operation to evacuate North Korean refugees from China to South Korea and Japan. China had signed an agreement with Pyongyang that obliges it to send any North Korean refugees home.

The photographer was sentenced on 22 May 2003 to two years in prison by a court in Yantai, Shandong province for "trafficking in persons."

Seok’s wife Kang Hye-won will go to China on 18 March to be ready to meet her husband when he leaves the prison. The couple will leave Chinese territory again in the afternoon of 19 March from Qingdao, Shandong Province, opposite the Korean peninsula, and arrive back in South Korea at the Incheon airport at 5:00 p.m.

Four other people are still in prison for organising the attempt to evacuate the refugees. There has been no further news about the fate of the North Koreans who were arrested by police.

A freelance photojournalist, who has worked for the U. S. daily The New York Times and the South Korean GEO Magazine, Seok is physically very weakened.

More than 10,000 people had signed the petition for his release on either or

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