South Korean photographer released from prison

New York, March 19, 2004—The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) welcomes the early release of freelance photojournalist Jae Hyun Seok but remains concerned that the charges against him have not been dropped.

Seok, a South Korean national, was released today from prison in Shandong Province. He arrived at Inchon International Airport in Seoul late this afternoon.

Seok, who was arrested in January 2003, was serving a two-year sentence on charges of human trafficking. At the time of his arrest, he was taking photographs of North Korean refugees in Yantai, Shandong Province, who were boarding fishing boats bound for South Korea and Japan. In May 2003, Seok was sentenced to two years in prison. On December 19, 2003, a court in Shandong Province rejected his appeal and upheld his original sentence.

On March 18, Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Kong Quan confirmed Seok’s imminent release, saying that the move came in response to repeated requests from the South Korean government. He also added that, “This measure absolutely does not change the fact of [Jae Hyun Seok’s] crime.”

Mr. Seok worked regularly for The New York Times and other publications. He was not on assignment at the time of his arrest, though his family and friends have said he was filming the refugees’ escape as part of a journalistic project.

“CPJ is relieved that Jae Hyun Seok has regained his freedom at last,” said CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper. “But Seok spent more than a year in prison for a crime he did not commit. The charges against him should be dropped immediately.”

Thousands of North Koreans have crossed the Chinese border to escape food shortages and political repression at home. The Chinese government treats the refugees as economic migrants and regularly repatriates them to North Korea. Journalists who report on the plight of North Korean refugees in China are routinely harassed or detained. The fate of the North Koreans who were arrested with Seok is unknown. At least five other people who were arrested with Seok, a South Korean aid worker, two Chinese nationals, and a North Korean national, remain in prison.