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China to Free Jailed S. Korean Photojournalist - 2004-03-18


Diplomats say a South Korean photojournalist who has been jailed in China is about the be freed. The freelance photographer had been sentenced to prison after being convicted of helping North Korean asylum seekers leave China.

South Korean photographer Seok Jae-hyun is expected to be released from Chinese custody on Friday. Diplomats at South Korea's embassy in Beijing say they have been told that Mr. Seok will be put on a plane bound for Seoul from the eastern port city of Qindao.

Mr. Seok, a freelance photographer for The New York Times and South Korea's Geo magazine, was arrested in the port town of Yantai last January. He has been in jail since May when he was convicted of human trafficking and sentenced to two years in prison.

At the time of his arrest the photographer was covering an attempt by activists to help North Koreans flee to Japan and South Korea in fishing boats. Four of the activists were also arrested and remain imprisoned in China. There has been no word on the fate of the North Koreans.

The jailing of Mr. Seok had attracted international attention. Activist groups say he has been unfairly imprisoned and his wife said his physical condition was weakening while he was being held in a crowded cell at Weifang prison.

A spokeswoman in Seoul for the Citizen's Alliance for North Korean Human Rights, Kim Hak-min, says the length of Mr. Seok's imprisonment has been unusual for such a case. "There have been [similar] cases where people were released after few weeks or at the most couple of months or half a year," she says. " But it looks like a year and two months is long to make someone suffer inside of a prison in China."

News of his imminent release follows a visit to Beijing this week by South Korean Vice Foreign Minister Lee Soo-hyuck. Mr. Lee was in the Chinese capital to discuss China's proposal for working groups to resolve the impasse over North Korea's nuclear programs.

It is believed that a large number North Korean refugees - possibly several-hundred thousand - are hiding in China. Beijing has an agreement with Pyongyang to send back to North Korea any such refugees, who the Chinese government regards as economic migrants.

The relatively small number of defectors who have managed to make it to South Korea, via a third country, say those who are sent back to North Korea by China face imprisonment, torture or execution.