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After Escaping China by Sea, Dissident Kwon Pyong Faces His Next Act

After Escaping China by Sea, Dissident Kwon Pyong Faces His Next Act

The dissident’s lone regret after his 200-mile escape across the Yellow Sea was not taking night vision goggles.

Nearing the end of his jet ski journey out of China last summer, Kwon Pyong peered through the darkness off the South Korean coast. As he approached the shore, sea gulls appeared to bob as if floating. He steered forward, then ran aground: The birds were sitting on mud.

“I had everything — sunscreen, backup batteries, a knife to cut buoy lines,” he recalled in an interview. He was prepared to signal his location with a laser pen if he became stranded and to burn his notes with a lighter if he were captured. He also had a visa to enter South Korea, and had intended to arrive at a port of entry, he said, not strand himself on a mud flat.

It wasn’t enough.

Mr. Kwon, 36 and an ethnic Korean, had mocked China’s powerful leader and criticized how the ruling Communist Party was persecuting hundreds of pro-democracy activists at home and abroad. In response, he said, he faced an exit ban and years of detention, prison and surveillance.

But fleeing to South Korea did not offer the relief he expected. He was still hounded by the Chinese state, he said, and spent time in detention. Even after he was released, he was in legal limbo: neither wanted nor allowed to leave.

It would take 10 more months for Mr. Kwon to be permitted to leave South Korea. Days before he flew out on Sunday, he returned to the mud flat where he haplessly came ashore off Incheon last summer and recounted for the first time publicly the details of his meticulously 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 corroborated many of the details in his account.

On a Yamaha WaveRunner purchased with the equivalent of $25,000 in cash, withdrawn from several banks to avoid tipping off the police, Mr. Kwon set off on the morning of Aug. 16 from the foggy coast of the Shandong Peninsula.

A photo released by South Korea’s Coast Guard showing Mr. Kwon’s WaveRunner in Incheon in August 2023.Credit…Korea Coast Guard, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

He said he wore a black life jacket and motorcycle helmet for the journey, where he crashed into 10-foot waves and dodged floating rice wine bottles. As his skin burned from the summer sun, he fell into the sea twice, losing his sunglasses.

He refueled using the five barrels of gas that he had tied to the WaveRunner. For himself, he had five bottles of water and five ham and tuna sandwiches. He navigated using a marine compass and a smartphone he had acquired from someone else.

His first glimpse of land came as the setting sun gave the islands off South Korea a warm glow. What was supposed to take eight hours turned to 14. By the time Mr. Kwon arrived in Incheon, the pink sky he had stopped to admire had faded to black.

He did not see any boats or ships on guard, he said, even as he entered a heavily militarized area that the navy monitors for activity, including defectors from North Korea.

Mr. Kwon — who speaks Chinese, English and some Korean — called the local police for help. For an hour, he waited while trying to fend off mosquitoes by walking around his watercraft in beige Crocs.

That night, he said, the Incheon Coast Guard and the South Korean Marine Corps rescued him, detained him and began investigating him along with the South Korean National Intelligence Service.

South Korea rarely accepts refugees, and the authorities served him a deportation order. But over the next months, he was also banned from leaving the country as he fought a criminal charge of unlawful entry, which can be punished with up to five years in prison.

He said that he wondered how things might have unfolded had his arrival gone as planned.

South Korean prosecutors did not lift the exit ban they imposed on Mr. Kwon until his criminal case was finished this month. He said he planned to apply for asylum in the United States or Canada. His flight on Sunday was bound for Newark.

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

Mr. Kwon, whose Chinese name is Quan Ping, is from a city in the northeastern Chinese province of Jilin, near the border with North Korea. He has visited South Korea, his grandfather’s birthplace, regularly since childhood. He spent his college years in the United States, where he went by Johnny, participated in Iowa State University’s Army R.O.T.C. program and took flying lessons, he said.

He studied aerospace engineering at the university for a few years and returned in 2012 to China, where he ran an online clothing brand and traded cryptocurrencies. He continued traveling widely, touring Lebanon and Syria as an aspiring photojournalist, he said.

He first drew the ire of the Chinese authorities when he began criticizing the Communist Party online. In 2016, he posted on social media about antigovernment protests he had attended in Hong Kong, a Chinese territory. He wore a T-shirt calling China’s leader, Xi Jinping, “Xitler.”

Chinese authorities arrested Mr. Kwon that year and sentenced him in 2017 to 18 months in prison for “inciting subversion of state power,” a charge frequently leveled against dissidents and human rights lawyers.

After his release in 2018, the police tapped his communications, tracked his movements and periodically interrogated him, he said. State agents, he added, were alarmed by his contact with the leaders of the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising, 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.

Mr. Kwon grew desperate to leave as the police investigated his family and friends. He said his plans to leave China by sea were inspired in part by the 1994 movie “The Shawshank Redemption” and by Lindsay Warner, an explorer who circumnavigated Australia on a Jet Ski. He decided South Korea was his only viable option.

He left behind his e-commerce and crypto operations, as well as his friends, family members and a girlfriend.

After the rescue from the mud flat, Mr. Kwon said, investigators seemed baffled by his story and interrogated him, threatened to torture him and denied his request for a lawyer. The Incheon Coast Guard, which led the investigation, said in a statement that “there were no human rights violations” during the investigation.

In court, Mr. Kwon argued that he was a political refugee and had intended to arrive legally at the Incheon Port, less than a mile from the mud flat, with a tourist visa. A judge found him guilty of unlawful entry in November, handing down a suspended one-year prison sentence with a two-year probationary period.

The verdict released Mr. Kwon from custody but not from legal limbo. Immigration officials imposed an exit ban as prosecutors appealed the judge’s decision.

While living in his parents’ house in Ansan, south of Seoul, Mr. Kwon went to the gym, read books about crypto trading and volunteered at an English language school for adults. He said he also befriended a group of Nigerian refugees by joining their soccer club.

But he didn’t let his guard down. He stuck to the routines he had developed in China: constantly checking for security cameras, and using encrypted texting apps and signal-blocking Faraday bags.

Lee Dae-seon, a South Korean activist who has helped Mr. Kwon, said that he has warned Mr. Kwon of the dangers of China’s overseas police effort, known as Operation Fox Hunt, in which Chinese dissidents living abroad have been forcibly repatriated.

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

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

In May, an appeals court dismissed prosecutors’ appeal, as well as Mr. Kwon’s lawyers’ efforts to have his sentence reduced. Mr. Kwon decided not to pursue the case further so that he could leave the country quickly, and prosecutors lifted the travel ban, said Sejin Kim, his lawyer.

At the mud flat, Mr. Kwon 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 is traveling to the United States on a visa for visitors.

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

An immigration law specialist said that while a case for seeking asylum in the United States appeared to be strong, a decision could take years. Mr. Kwon would also have to demonstrate a “well-founded fear” of additional persecution should he be deported to China, said the specialist, Yael Schacher, of Refugees International, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C.

At Incheon Airport on Sunday, he said goodbye to his parents and friends in South Korea, where he would be barred from returning for five years because of his criminal record.

He disappeared into the security line, a ticket for seat 17A in hand, and with his Chinese passport and his South Korean deportation order in the black tactical backpack he had brought on his escape from China. He confirmed that he had boarded his plane by telephone.

“I’m happy, sad,” he said minutes before his flight was set to take off. “And angry,” he added, “that it took me so long to leave South Korea.”

At shortly before 10 p.m., the flight status display showed that his plane had departed.

John Liu contributed reporting.

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