New York, May 22, 2003—The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) condemns the sentencing of South Korean free-lance photojournalist Jae Hyun Seok to two years in prison.

Today, a court in Yantai, Shandong Province, sentenced Seok, who works regularly for The New York Times and South Korea’s Geo magazine, to a two-year prison term on charges of human trafficking.

Seok was arrested on January 18 while photographing North Korean refugees attempting to board fishing boats in Yantai bound for South Korea and Japan. South Korean aid worker Choi Yong Hun, Chinese nationals Piao Longgao and Jin Chengwan, and the North Korean refugees were also arrested. Choi, Piao, Jin, and an unidentified North Korean were today sentenced to between two and seven years on similar charges.

“By sentencing Jae Hyun Seok, China’s leaders are sending a clear message to all journalists that they are not welcome to report from China on stories of international importance,” said CPJ’s executive director Ann Cooper. “It is outrageous that China’s leaders consider Seok’s important journalistic work to be a criminal offense. CPJ demands his immediate and unconditional release.”

Seok was photographing the boatlift operation in Yantai as part of a journalistic project documenting the plight of North Korean refugees in China, according to his family and colleagues. In recent years, hundreds of thousands of North Korean refugees have entered China to escape food shortages and political repression at home. From China, they often try to seek asylum in a third country. The Chinese government views the refugees as “economic migrants” and regularly repatriates them to North Korea, where they can face imprisonment and other types of persecution.

China is currently holding 38 journalists in prison. Of these, Seok is the only foreign correspondent. His imprisonment is in fact highly unusual for a foreign journalist in China. Generally, foreign correspondents there who report on controversial subjects may be questioned, possibly detained for brief periods, and, at worst, deported from the country.