The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) condemns the detention of free-lance photographer Jae Hyun Seok, a South Korean national.
On January 17, Seok was photographing two groups of about 60 North Korean refugees in Yantai, Shandong Province, who were trying to board two fishing boats bound for Cheju Island, South Korea, and Sasebo Island, Japan. Chinese police arrested him, along with the refugees and a South Korean aid worker. Seok, who regularly works for The New York Times, was working independently at the time of his arrest.
Authorities have accused Seok of engaging in human trafficking. Today, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson acknowledged that two South Koreans were detained with the refugees, but she did not confirm their identities. “They are suspected of smuggling or organizing smuggling activities and now are in criminal detention,” she said.
In recent years, hundreds of thousands of North Koreans have fled to China to escape severe food shortages and political repression. China considers the refugees to be economic migrants and regularly repatriates them to North Korea, where they often face imprisonment or other types of persecution. The Chinese government has not announced its plans for the refugees detained in Yantai, but aid groups fear they will be repatriated.
As part of the Chinese government’s crackdown on North Korean refugees, authorities have harassed journalists who report on their plight. In September 2002, security officials in the capital, Beijing, forcibly entered the home office of Yeo Shi Dong, correspondent for the South Korean daily Chosun Ilbo, and confiscated several personal documents, including his passport and certificate of residency. Yeo has written extensively about China’s efforts to prevent North Korean refugees from seeking asylum by entering foreign embassies in China.
As a nonpartisan organization of journalists dedicated to the defense of our colleagues worldwide, CPJ condemns the imprisonment of Jae Hyun Seok, who was simply doing his job as a photographer in documenting a story of international importance. We call for his immediate and unconditional release.
Thank you for your attention to this important matter. We await your response.