"It is an amazing feeling to see my son for the first time in four years," Steve Kim told ABC News on Monday, four days after he was released from prison in Beijing.
Chinese authorities arrested Kim, a furniture salesman from Huntington, N.Y., in September 2003 for trying to help a group of nine North Koreans who fled persecution and famine in North Korea defect to South Korea. Under the South Korean constitution, the refugees would receive automatic citizenship.
"The refugees were stranded, no money, no one to help them. Still it was 50 times better than their life in North Korea," said Kim, who is now back at his home in Huntington.
The Chinese government convicted Kim of illegally transporting aliens and sentenced him to five years in prison, drawing outrage from American officials.
Several lawmakers, including Sens. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Sam Brownback, R-Kan., wrote letters to PRC officials on Kim's behalf, urging China to reconsider Kim's sentence and give him early release on "humanitarian grounds."
U.S. Ambassador to China Clarke Randt Jr. also called on the Chinese to release him.
Human rights advocates are "thrilled" by Kim's release.
"We hope Steve's story will expose to the American public the horrors going on in China right now for North Koreans," said Suzanne Scholte, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Defense Forum Foundation, a nonprofit organization that promotes freedom and human rights in North Korea.
Tens of thousands of North Koreans have crossed the northern border to China in recent years, according to human rights organizations. More than 10,000 of those have successfully made their way to South Korea, according to the Korean Embassy.
Kim became involved in aiding North Korean refugees after meeting them on business trips to China.
When arrested, Kim was renting apartments in Guangdong Province for the defectors.
"I found out it was illegal to help the refugees only after I was arrested," said Kim.
Two Chinese women were arrested with Kim; there is no information on whether the government continues to hold them. The nine North Korean defectors were repatriated to North Korea.
The Chinese Embassy did not respond to ABC News' request for comment.