Home News After Fleeing China by Sea, Dissidents Face Next Steps

After Fleeing China by Sea, Dissidents Face Next Steps

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The dissident’s only regret after escaping 200 miles across the Yellow Sea was that he didn’t bring night vision goggles.

his Jet Ski Tours After leaving China last summer, Kwon Pyeong peered through the darkness toward the South Korean coast. As he approached the shore, seagulls seemed to float. He steered his boat forward, then ran aground: The birds were sitting in the mud.

“I had everything — sunscreen, spare batteries, a knife to cut the buoy lines,” he recalled in an interview. He was prepared to use a laser pointer to mark his location if he got stuck and a lighter to burn his notes if he was caught. He also had a visa to enter South Korea, and he said he planned to reach the port of entry rather than get stuck on the mudflats.

That’s not enough.

Mr. Kwon, a 36-year-old ethnic Korean who has mocked China’s powerful leaders and criticized how the ruling Communist Party has persecuted hundreds of democracy activists at home and abroad, said he faced a travel ban and years of detention, imprisonment and surveillance in response.

But fleeing to South Korea did not bring him the relief he expected. He said he was still being pursued by the Chinese government and was detained for some time. Even after his release, he remained in legal limbo: neither wanting to leave, nor allowed to.

It will take another 10 months before Mr. Kwon is allowed to leave South Korea. Days before his flight on Sunday, he returned to the mudflats where he made his ill-fated landing in Incheon last summer and spoke publicly for the first time about the details of his carefully planned journey.

Court documents from his criminal case in South Korea, past interviews with his friends and family and a statement from the Incheon Coast Guard last year corroborate many of the details in his account.

On the morning of August 16, Quan rode off the foggy coast of Shandong Peninsula on a Yamaha WaveRunner motorcycle. To avoid tipping off the police, Quan withdrew the equivalent of $25,000 in cash from several banks and purchased the motorcycle.

Photos released by the South Korean Coast Guard show Mr Kwon’s WaveRunner docked in Incheon in August 2023.Credit…South Korean Coast Guard, AFP — Getty Images

He said he wore a black life jacket and motorcycle helmet as he hit 10-foot waves and dodged floating rice wine bottles. He fell into the sea twice and his sunglasses fell off as his skin burned from the summer sun.

He fueled the boat with five drums of gas strapped to the WaveRunner. He brought five bottles of water and five ham-and-tuna sandwiches. He navigated with a borrowed marine compass and a smartphone.

As the setting sun bathed the islands off South Korea in a warm glow, Mr. Kwon caught his first glimpse of land. The journey that was expected to take eight hours ended up taking just 14. By the time Mr. Kwon reached Incheon, the pink sky he had stopped to admire had faded to black.

He said that even as he entered the militarized area, which is heavily monitored by the Navy, including for the movement of North Korean defectors, he did not see any ships on alert.

Mr. Kwon, who speaks Chinese, English and a little Korean, sought help from local police and waited for an hour, trying to shoo away mosquitoes as he walked around the jet ski in beige Crocs.

He said the Incheon Coast Guard and South Korean marines rescued him that night, took him into custody and began investigating him along with South Korea’s National Intelligence Service.

South Korea, which rarely accepts refugees, issued him a deportation order, but he was also barred from leaving the country in the months ahead as he fights criminal charges of illegal entry, which carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison.

He said he wondered how things would have turned out if his arrival had gone as planned.

South Korean prosecutors have not lifted their travel ban on Mr. Kwon until his criminal case is concluded this month. Mr. Kwon said he plans to apply for asylum in the United States or Canada. His flight on Sunday will be to Newark.

“I want to live my life,” he said. “I want to live in peace for a while.”

Mr. Quan, whose Chinese name is Quan Ping, is from Jilin, a northeastern Chinese province near the North Korean border. He has been returning to South Korea, where his grandfather was born, since he was a child. He said he went to college in the United States, where he went by the name Johnny, participated in the Army Reserve Officers Training Corps program at Iowa State University and learned to fly.

He studied aerospace engineering for a few years in college and returned to China in 2012 to run an online clothing brand and trade cryptocurrencies. He continued to travel, he said, and as an aspiring photojournalist he visited Lebanon and Syria.

He first drew the ire of Chinese authorities when he began criticizing the Communist Party online. In 2016, he posted on social media about anti-government protests he had attended in the Chinese territory of Hong Kong. He wore a T-shirt that referred to China’s leader, Xi Jinping, as “theHitler

The Chinese authorities arrested Mr. Quan that year. Sentencing In 2017, he was sentenced to 18 months in prison for “inciting subversion of state power,” a charge often used against dissidents and human rights lawyers.

After his release in 2018, he said, police monitored his communications, tracked his movements and interrogated him regularly. He added that state agents were alarmed by his links to leaders of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, including Wang Dan, once one of China’s most wanted men.

“I couldn’t live a normal life,” he said.

China’s Ministry of Public Security did not respond to a request for comment.

As police investigated his family and friends, Mr. Quan became increasingly eager to leave. He said his plan to leave China by sea was inspired in part by the 1994 film “The Shawshank Redemption,” and by the Lindsay Warneran explorer who has traveled around Australia on a jet ski, decided that South Korea was the only viable option.

He left behind his e-commerce and cryptocurrency businesses, as well as his friends, family and girlfriend.

Mr. Kwon said that after he was rescued from the mud flats, investigators seemed confused by his story, questioned him, threatened to torture him and rejected his request for a lawyer. The Incheon Coast Guard, which is leading the investigation, said in a statement that “no human rights violations occurred” during the probe.

In court, Mr. Kwon argued that he was a political refugee who had intended to arrive legally at the port of Incheon, less than a mile from the mudflats, on a tourist visa. Found him guilty Last November, he was sentenced to one year in prison, suspended for two years, for illegal entry.

The ruling freed Mr. Quan but did not end his legal woes: Prosecutors appealed the judge’s decision and immigration officials imposed a travel ban on him.

Mr. Kwon, who lives with his parents in Ansan, south of Seoul, regularly goes to the gym, reads books about cryptocurrency trading and volunteers at an English school for adults. He also joined a soccer club with a group of Nigerian refugees and became friends with them, he said.

But he didn’t let his guard down. He stuck to the habits he’d developed in China: constantly checking surveillance cameras, using encrypted text messaging apps and signal-blocking Faraday bags.

Lee Dae-seon, a South Korean activist who helped Mr. Kwon, said he had warned Mr. Kwon about the dangers of China’s overseas police operations, known as Fox Hunt,in Chinese dissidents People living overseas were forcibly repatriated.

Mr. Lee said South Korea’s National Intelligence Service had confirmed to him that he and Mr. Kwon were targets of the operation. The National Intelligence Service did not respond to a request for comment.

“It’s not safe for him to continue living in South Korea,” Mr Lee said.

In May, an appeals court rejected an appeal by prosecutors and efforts by Mr. Kwon’s lawyers to reduce his sentence. Mr. Kwon decided not to pursue the case further so he could leave the country as soon as possible, and prosecutors lifted the travel ban, said Mr. Kwon’s lawyer, Sejin Kim.

On the mudflats, Quan said he was looking forward to leaving and starting a new business venture. He said some of his friends and relatives live in the United States and Canada. He was traveling to the United States on a tourist visa.

“I want to start my second life,” he said.

An immigration law expert said that while the grounds for seeking asylum in the United States appear strong, a decision could take years. Yael Schacher, an expert at Refugees International, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, said Mr. Quan would also have to prove that he would have a “well-founded fear” of further persecution if he were deported to China.

He said goodbye to his parents and friends in South Korea on Sunday at Incheon airport, where he will be banned from returning for five years because of his criminal record.

He disappeared into the security line, holding his ticket for seat 17A and his black tactical backpack containing his Chinese passport and South Korean deportation order, which he had taken with him when he fled China. He called to confirm that he was on the plane.

“I’m happy and sad at the same time,” he said minutes before his flight took off. “And angry,” he added, “because it took me so long to leave Korea.”

At around 10 p.m., the flight status showed that his plane had taken off.

John Liu Contributed reporting.

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