Photo exhibition raises funds for jailed journalistThe opening of a gallery exhibition is usually a festive event, packed with the artist’s friends and well-wishers. But the people at the photo exhibition at Gallery Pyundonamu last week were in no mood to celebrate, as the photographer is in a jail cell in China.
It’s been a little more than a year since Seok Jae-hyun, a 34-year-old freelance photojournalist for the New York Times, was sentenced to two years in prison by Chinese authorities for taking photographs of North Korean refugees in China.
The exhibition at Pyundonamu was organized by Mr. Seok’s supporters to raise money to lobby for his release. The jailed photographer is eligible for parole in May, after serving half his sentence. If he is denied parole, Mr. Seok won’t be released until May 2005.
Present at the opening last week were many young photographers, assistants and former co-workers who collaborated with Seok on independent documentary projects that were often shunned by mainstream media, on subjects ranging from Southeast Asian laborers to farmers to prisoners at an Ohio jail.
Many visitors at the opening were freelance photographers, who know all too well the difficulties of working independently.
Mr. Seok, who was working on his own project, was detained by the Chinese authorities at the port of Yantai, Shandong province, in January 2003, as he climbed onto a boat with North Korean refugees to document their escape.
His film and cameras were seized, and he was charged with human trafficking by Chinese officials. In May 2003, he was sentenced to two years.
In February 2003, the New York Times sent an official letter to the Chinese government certifying Seok’s journalist status and demanding his release. But the Chinese court left the Times’ letter out of its records.
The defectors were sent back to North Korea, where they were certain to face severe punishment. Mr. Seok was transferred to a prison in Weifang. Currently, he is the only foreigner incarcerated in China.
“He is apprehensive about parole at this point,” says Kang Hye-won, Mr. Seok’s wife, who last saw her husband in January. She lives in Daegu near her 64-year-old mother-in-law.
Out of 11 visits to China, Ms. Kang was allowed only five face-to-face meetings with her husband.
“He was living with 30 other Chinese prisoners in a small cell,” she says. “He lost a lot of weight. His 10 fingers were severely swollen from frostbite.”
Mr. Seok’s family have repeatedly emphasized that the photographer was only documenting the plight of North Korean defectors in China, not “assisting” the refugees’ escape, as the Chinese authorities had put it.
Fear among photojournalists
Though the details of what Mr. Seok actually did or didn’t do at the scene of the arrest to raise the suspicions of the Chinese government remain unclear, friends and supporters of Mr. Seok say the photographer clearly meant to document the journey as a journalist.
The incident has also triggered some insecurity among freelance photographers here who work with the fear of facing similar political landmines like Mr. Seok, especially in areas where media access is restricted.
“It brings up the question of how the status of freelance photographers could be protected when they don’t belong to an organization,” says Song Su-jeong, an editor of the South Korean Geo Magazine, which has used Mr. Seok’s photos in the past.
The exhibition at Pyundonamu, which also marked the one-year anniversary of Mr. Seok’s arrest, features 30 photographs that Mr. Seok had taken in the last 10 years.
The framed photographs, which are priced from 300,000 to 600,000 won, depict images Mr. Seok had taken for various publications, such as meditating monks or a series of shots from the Ohio prison the photographer visited in 1995. Proceeds from sales will be donated to support Mr. Seok’s family.
Ms. Kang says one of the major frustrations she and her husband’s supporters have encountered is “the lack of efforts” by the Korean government to free Mr. Seok.
In August 2003, during the Korea-China diplomats’ summit, South Korea’s then-Foreign Minister Yoon Young-kwan formally requested his Chinese counterpart, Li Zhaoxing, to release Mr. Seok. The Chinese government said it would negotiate with the related organizations.
Ms. Kang says since then, the South Korean government has made no notable attempts to free her husband or to push for parole.
Seok’s supporters say the response from the Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs is markedly different from how the Japanese Foreign Ministry handled a similar case last year.
In July, members of a Japanese human rights group were caught helping North Korean defectors flee from Beijing, but were released in just 20 days because of pressure from the Japanese Foreign Ministry.
Korean officials, however, defend their handling of Mr. Seok’s case.
“Since January 2003, we’ve contacted the Korean consulate in China, Chinese diplomatic officials, Chinese party officials, security officials and the courts,” said a senior official at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs who didn’t want to be named.
A spokesman for the Northeast Asian department of the Foreign Ministry says it has made “at least 30 contacts,” official or unofficial, to the Chinese government asking for Mr. Seok’s release and parole, though the ministry says it can’t specify when the last appeal was made.
“We have been told that the Chinese government is still in the process of investigating whether Mr. Seok should be released for parole,” the spokesman says. “This incident has been overemphasized by the press, and we are not sure if this will be favorable for Mr. Seok’s release.”
Journalists group’s petition
Non-governmental organizations have raised concerns about Mr. Seok’s case as a humanitarian issue.
Reporters Without Borders, an international organization advocating press freedom, launched a petition earlier this year calling for the journalist’s release. More than 10,000 people have signed the petition as of February.
The group has also criticized the South Korean government for not taking a more active role to protect Mr. Seok.
In one of its news releases, it urged the Korean government to “use every diplomatic and political means to obtain the release of its citizen.”
Last month, prior to the Beijing summit on North Korea’s nuclear program, the group called on South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell to bring up Mr. Seok’s case during the talks. No public announcements were made about the matter when the conference ended.
“What Seok Jae-hyun probably did was the least he could do after seeing the suffering of North Korean defectors,” says Kang Wi-won, who taught Mr. Seok when he was studying photography at Kyungil University. “You just can’t tell whether his courage went too far or he was just terribly unlucky.”
by Park Soo-mee
The exhibition of Seok Jae-hyun’s works will be on display at the Gallery Pyundonamu until March 16. For more information about the show, call (02) 3210-0016.