South Korea Sentences Dissident Who Fled China on a Jet Ski

After being held for months on an immigration violation, a Chinese dissident who traveled from China to South Korea on a Jet Ski-type vehicle in August was given a suspended sentence on Thursday. His prospects remain unclear.

The district court in Incheon, South Korea, handed the activist, Kwon Pyong, 35, a suspended jail term of one year with a two-year probation period, effectively ending his custody. For the past three months, Mr. Kwon has been in detention in Incheon.

After Mr. Kwon made the dangerous trip, crossing around 200 miles of ocean by personal watercraft, he was found stranded on a mud flat off South Korea’s west coast, near Incheon. He had hoped to seek asylum, but instead was arrested for illegal entry. The South Korea Coast Guard found him with a life jacket, a telescope, a compass and a helmet, according to the local police.

Mr. Kwon was charged with violating the Immigration Control Act. His legal team had initially hoped for a fine with no detention, but several months in custody and a disappointing preliminary hearing in October had lowered their expectations.

Deportation would be the worst-case scenario for Mr. Kwon, but Thursday’s ruling makes that look less likely.

“He’s had dreams of being sent back,” said Lee Dae-seon, an activist who has known Mr. Kwon for years and last visited Mr. Kwon at the detention center on Monday.

Mr. Kwon, who had been a vocal critic of China for years, disappeared into Chinese police custody in 2016 after posting a photo of himself in a T-shirt likening Xi Jinping to Hitler. Sentenced to 18 months in prison for inciting subversion, he was released in March 2018. Since 2019, he has told Mr. Lee he was interested in seeking asylum in South Korea. The two men were acquainted through other human rights activists.

“We can’t imagine how bad it could be,” Mr. Kwon’s father, Quan He, said Thursday of the prospect of Mr. Kwon being sent back to China. “Under Chinese law, it’s a sin to come out against your country,” said Mr. Quan, who came to South Korea shortly after learning about his son’s arrest.

The court has been examining Mr. Kwon’s claims for asylum, for which his previous anti-China posts on social media potentially offer support, said Ethan Hee-seok Shin, a legal analyst in Seoul. The court has yet to release its decision.