INCHON, SOUTH KOREA — They confiscated his cameras and film, tried and sentenced him to two years in jail for attempting to smuggle North Korean refugees into South Korea via China, confined him in a cell with dozens of long-term prisoners, and left him frostbitten and underfed for 14 months.
Then, without notice, Seok Jae-hyun, an South Korean freelance photographer for foreign newspapers and magazines, was told Friday morning by his jailers in the Chinese city of Qingdiao that he would be released that day to board a flight back to South Korea with his wife.
"Mentally I collapsed," said Mr. Seok, who was photo editor of his college paper at Southern Illinois University, describing his response as his wife stood beside him after his arrival here. "It really knocked me down."
Seok, surrounded by well-wishers, fought for words as he talked about his release, his time in prison, and his arrest on January 18, 2003, along with approximately 50 North Korean refugees as they were on their way to board fishing boats in the port of Yantai.
Seok's story is a complicated one. The mission to photograph what was to have been the first mass escape by North Korean refugees on boats from China to South Korea represented both a professional opportunity and a chance to participate in a humanitarian cause. His tale dramatizes the dilemma facing journalists as they approach - and sometimes cross - the line from dispassionate observer to activist for the human tragedy they are recording.
"The first thing I was supposed to do was to cover them as a journalist," he said, talking through Los Angeles pastor Douglas Shin, whose Exodus 21 was one of seven nongovernmental organizations collaborating on the escape. "At the base of my obligation as a journalist was a partnership. I was working as a refugee activist."
Seok revealed his mixed motives as he spoke of the emotionally charged struggle on behalf of victims of abuses in North Korea. "My intention," Seok acknowledged, "was to help the situation as much as I could, first as a journalist and second as a sympathizer."
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), based in New York, has portrayed Seok, who had taken photographs in South Korea for the New York Times and others, as the victim of a harsh regime cracking down on an independent journalist. At the end of 2003, 39 of the 136 journalists sitting in prisons around the world, were in China, according to CPJ.
Ann Cooper, executive director of CPJ, welcoming Seok's release, demanded that Chinese authorities drop the charges against him.
He was, she says, arrested "for a crime he did not commit" while photographing North Korean refugees.
"Journalists who report on the plight of North Korean refugees in China," she observed. "are routinely harassed or detained."
In Seok's initial trial and then in an appeal, Chinese judges were not impressed by either his dedication as a photographer or his concern about North Korean refugees. The verdicts of the courts reflected the view of Chinese authorities that refugees from North Korea are economic migrants who come illegally to China in search of jobs and money.
"These refugees that you talk about do not exist," Li Zhaoxing, China's foreign minister, remarked earlier this month on the sidelines of the National People's Congress in Beijing. They are, he said, "illegal immigrants."
Although the South Korean government has not contested China's policy, South Korean and foreign nongovernmental groups have turned the cause of North Korean refugees into an often lonely crusade for funds, support, and sympathy.
Mr. Shin said that he had enlisted Seok to record the first of what the organizers had hoped would be a wave of such boat lifts, similar to the flights of refugees from Cuba. "We just wanted to have one journalist," he said.
Seok said that before going to China he had had "a little discussion" with the foreign photo desk of The New York Times, for which he had worked on a freelance basis in South Korea, about submitting his photographs, but he did not have a contract. In any case, he said, Chinese authorities had confiscated all his equipment, valued at about $15,000, and never returned any of it.
He added that he had no idea who betrayed the refugees' plan to the Chinese police who were waiting for the group after they arrived at Yantai on a ferry from Dalian.
Seok said he was not physically abused while in jail but suffered from malnutrition and frostbite in his fingers, loosening his fingernails.
"My wife was shocked," he said, when she saw his condition during a brief visit, but he appeared to have recovered physically in recent months except for his fingernails.
"The hardest thing in my prison experience was waiting and missing my loved ones," said Seok. "Through my experience in this ordeal, I want to do what I will be doing more professionally. I am still interested in working with North Korean refugees."
His first concern, he said, was for those who are still in prison. "I will have to find out ... how to help them out," he said. "The people in the media must get together and try to give assistance."