April 25, 2023
SEOUL – Ms Park Ji-hyun vividly remembers the day she stumbled on a Telegram chatroom where she saw two to three minutes worth of footage of naked young girls.
She was so shocked that she slammed her laptop shut.
Then a 23-year-old student journalist, she went back into the chatroom to dig for more information, and eventually exposed what would be known as South Korea’s largest and most disturbing case of online sexual slavery in 2019.
There were videos of mainly underage girls in compromising or degrading acts or inflicting self-harm in multiple chat groups on Telegram, an encrypted messaging service.
“The most shocking was a video where the perpetrators made the victims engrave their names or IDs on their bodies, using knives,” Ms Park told The Straits Times.
Four years have passed since the discovery of the case, called Nth Room, sent shockwaves around the country and pushed the police to crack down on digital sex crimes.
However, activists are urging the authorities to do more, arguing that current laws and measures are not sufficient to keep cyber criminals in check, despite the lengthy jail terms given to those behind Nth Room.
Mastermind Cho Ju-bin, then 24 years old, was arrested in March 2020, and jailed for 42 years for luring at least 74 victims – many of them minors – with bogus modelling contracts and blackmailing them into filming sexually explicit and degrading content.
He had sold the content to members of the chatrooms who numbered as many as 260,000, with some paying up to US$1,200 (S$1,600).
Cho’s main accomplice Moon Hyung-wook, also 24 at the time, was handed a 34-year jail term.
A so-called anti-Nth room legislation has been in place since December 2021 to strengthen punishment for digital sex crimes and make it mandatory for South Korean-owned Internet service providers to monitor their platforms and prevent the distribution of illegal content.
A person who possesses, produces and distributes child pornography gets at least a year’s jail term.
However, criminals are exploiting overseas-based platforms that are not subject to South Korean laws, such as Telegram and Discord, a chat app.
Some offences not treated as sex crimes
Activist Summer Cha of Project ReSET, a South Korean group that monitors and reports online sexual abuse, said the laws and systems need to be sharpened to address digital sex crimes more specifically. For instance, she said, the distribution of sexually exploitative material where the victim’s identity and whereabouts are not known is treated as mere pornography, not a sex crime.
There is no law to punish verbal sexual abuse and spreading of false personal information about the victim.
It is also harder to nab culprits if they store the materials in a cloud computing system instead of their desktop or laptop, and it is tougher to get a search warrant for the online system.
“If the laws are not improved, problems will continue to appear and it becomes a vicious circle,” Ms Cha told ST.
The police reported 16,866 cases of digital sex crimes in 2021 – 17 per cent more than in the previous year. Experts believe the actual figure is much higher, as many cases are unreported.
“The woman’s body belongs to the man”
The prevalence of the crime in highly-wired South Korea is often attributed to the low status of women in its patriarchal society, and fast-developing technology.
Ms Cha points to widespread misogyny, which she said “forces the woman to tolerate this form of violence caused by technology”.
“It feels like the woman is just the man’s accessory,” she lamented. “She is viewed as something that should not be in the spotlight. But if this changes and the man starts to view the woman as an independent human being, the crimes can be reduced. ”
Her co-worker Yoo Young agreed, noting that “the woman’s body belongs to the man” in South Korea. “The woman is unable to speak up if her body is violated against her will as it can bring damage to her reputation,” she said, referring to how victims are expected to hide in shame.
“But if the problem is not brought to light, there can be no counter action. If the woman’s voice can become louder, if her rights can be improved … it’s possible we can bring down the crime rates.”
Technology has also fuelled the number of digital sex crimes, from obscene prank calls in the 1990s to pornographic websites during the Internet boom of the 2000s.
Soranet, created in 1999 and hosted on an overseas platform, became the country’s largest pornographic website with thousands of illegal spycam videos and revenge porn. It was shut down only in 2016.
The silver lining is that there is now greater public awareness, especially after women started to speak up against sexism and unfair treatment in the wake of the global #MeToo movement against sexual harassment in 2018, followed by the Nth Room expose.
Big cities such as Seoul, Busan and Incheon have also set up their own digital sex crime centres to support victims.
The one in Seoul, which opened in March 2022, has so far assisted more than 300 victims, from teenagers to those in their 20s and 30s, according to its director Lee Eun-jeong.
What victims want the most is the removal of their videos, she said. The centre has so far helped to seek the deletion of more than 3,000 videos.
It also hopes to raise greater awareness that digital sex crimes are wrong, and to shift attitudes towards prevention, Ms Lee told ST.
“Digital sex crimes are not limited to South Korea. The whole world needs to address this problem and impose fundamental measures,” she said.
“Digital sex crimes will continue to evolve as society changes, so it’s very important to react accordingly.”
However, as digital sex crimes become more commonplace and public interest in them starts to wane, activists are worried about the effects of complacency.
Copycat Nth Room
The original Nth Room on Telegram has ceased to exist, but the materials posted there are apparently still circulating online, a sign of how difficult it is to eradicate digital sex crimes.
Copycat versions have sprung up, including one pushing animal abuse materials and another which saw women being tricked into becoming sex slaves on livestreaming platforms.
Another one, dubbed the Second Nth Room, saw its South Korean creator being arrested in Sydney for threatening nine underage girls and circulating 1,200 sexual videos of them on Telegram.
Ms Park, who is now a 27-year-old politician, said the “really upsetting part is that another digital sex crime is bound to occur”, given the current circumstances and lax controls.
“The problem of digital sex crime emerged due to the Nth Room but we can’t impose any sanctions on Telegram,” said Ms Park, who joined the main opposition Democratic Party to find “tighter and stronger barriers” to end digital sex crimes.
“There should be discussions on what the alternative is, but that has not been going well.”
Ms Yoo said she sees too many new cases around her, and this motivates her to continue monitoring and reporting illegal sites and chat rooms that upload sexually abusive materials.
“It will take a long time to bring about social change, but it’s clear that if no one speaks about it, the issue will eventually just disappear,” she said.
“I do think that things are getting better, bit by bit. I’m doing my part to crack this humongous digital sex crime system, and if I can pass the baton on, we will be able to keep the fire burning.”