When Seok Jae-hyun agreed to photograph an undercover boat rescue of North Korean refugees, the mission matched both his professional ambition and his growing sympathy with fellow Koreans living in the bitter gulags of the North.
Now the young man is sitting in a military prison near Yantai, China. He was arrested Jan. 18, along with 60 to 80 refugees, before even reaching two fishing boats bought for the escape.
So far, China has not recognized Mr. Seok's status as a journalist; he is charged with "people smuggling" - carrying a sentence of five years to life. Tuesday at the People's Superior Court in Shandong he has a public hearing to determine if the charges are correct. A review will decide whether Seok was an accessory, an organizer, or neither, according to Judge Zhu Bing, one of a three-judge panel.
Some 136 journalists languish in prisons around the world. China claims the most, at 39. Seok, however, is the only foreigner incarcerated there. He has been locked up four months, the most likely reason being that he accompanied one of the high-profile refugee escapes that, in the past year, have been a media embarrassment for Beijing and a security problem. Seok is "being made an example of," according to a diplomatic source in Seoul.
"No foreign journalist has been detained so long in China, before Mr. Seok; this is very unusual," notes Sophie Beach of the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York. "He has broken no laws, he was doing his job."
Seok's young career focused on disabled youth and prisoners, homeless people in the Philippines, and foreign laborers in Korea. Until he started working nearly full time for The New York Times last year, closing up in Seoul at 1 a.m., then driving three hours to Daegu to teach photography, Seok was headed for Japan.
But North Korean refugees put the hook in him. Working for foreign publications, he come in contact with cases of torture, prison-camp escapees, slave-trade victims, and hunger - stories often avoided in a South Korea aiming for better relations with the North. Refugees became his subject - and the Times was a top-notch forum, though his status was as a freelancer.
Colleagues and family say Seok's status isn't in dispute: All his income is from journalism. He's a member of the South Korean Foreign Correspondent's Club, listed under the Times, with five Times photos published in January prior to his arrest; he was recruited four years ago at a photographers conference in France by the Times foreign photo editor Cecelia Bohan, according to Seok's wife, Kang Hae-won. He also contributed quarterly to the Korean edition of Geo magazine.
Fellow journalists say Seok's case highlights the ambiguities and risks when sympathetic freelancers stray past conventional ground rules to capture authentic images. Such "reality" photos are hard to shoot, especially in China where media access is constricted. Yet they are highly prized at newspaper photo desks around the world.
"Jae takes interest in North Korean human rights problems as a journalist, not as an activist," says Lee Yang-joo, his friend and fellow photographer. "He has a right attitude about this. These conditions [of North Korean refugees] are our people's special problem."
The drama unfolded quickly: Seok received an early call on Jan. 13 from Douglas Shin, an evangelical activist. Mr. Shin had not informed Seok before that, "we operate on a need-to-know basis," he says. Five other groups were involved in the mission, including Doctors without Borders and Durihana, an evangelical Korean group. The idea was to take refugees by ferry from Dalian to Yantai, China, then sail on newly purchased fishing boats to Che Je island off the coast of Korea.
Seok immediately phoned his wife in Japan and told her to come back that day - he had something important to discuss. Kang met her husband at the Koreana Hotel in Seoul, where he told her the news, saying he could still back out. Kang was apprehensive, but went along. They planned to give Seok five years to establish himself, and this was work he believed in and could earn him a reputation. Seok spent the night slightly nervous, cleaning his camera twice, Kang remembers. He left the next morning for China.
Yet unbeknownst to organizers, someone in China had informed authorities, possibly swayed by "bounty money" offered by Chinese police. By the time Seok took the ferry to Yantai, the police had already arrested a dozen separate "cells" of refugees. Seok was arrested on the dock. Complicating his case, sources say, he "lectured" the Chinese police when arrested, telling them the refugees could face severe penalties if they were repatriated to North Korea. (They were.)
Letters of protest have come from the South Korean and Japanese Foreign Correspondents' Club. Times reporters initially spoke up, but have now been asked to send inquiries to their New York office. Seok's circle of friends here in Daegu, young artists who take up projects on human suffering which they feel are ignored by mainstream media, formed a group called Resolution 217 that is actively lobbying for his release.
Seok, soft-spoken with a quiet smile, is the youngest of four, with three older sisters, and is a favorite of his mother - who in late January and early February stood in front of the South Korean Foreign Ministry by herself for 16 straight days - to spur action from the government. In recent days, sources say, the Korean Embassy in China has raised the case in high-level meetings with the Chinese.
If the Times is taking an active behind-the-scenes role, the newspaper is not saying. "Although Seok Jae-hyun was not on assignment for the Times at the time of his detention, we are always distressed when obstacles are placed in the way of a journalist doing his job. Our concern has been made known to Chinese government officials and to the Committee to Protect Journalists.... [this] is our complete statement on the matter," says Toby Usnik, director of public relations.
"This is not a complicated case," argues Judge Zhu, one of the three panelists to hear Seok's defense Tuesday. What that means will await a decision in mid-May or sooner.