Reports of major digital sex crimes are once again sweeping through South Korean media as the Seoul Central District Court recently sentenced a South Korean national to 10 years in prison for distributing and selling sexually explicit content exploiting male children and adolescents.
South Korea has a long history of battling sexual violence and digital sex crimes. The murder of a young South Korean woman in the restroom of a Seoul subway station in 2016 ignited countrywide debate over sexism and gender conflict, ushering in calls for the country’s own #MeToo movement. According to Human Rights Watch, total prosecutions of sex crimes in South Korea involving “spycam” victims rose from 4 percent of sex crimes cases in 2008 to 20 percent in 2017. Spycams, or molka in Korean, are hidden cameras, typically stationed in areas of rest or comfort such as hospital rooms, hotels, and public bathrooms, which secretly take images and videos of unsuspecting victims, often for distribution and purchase online.
Two of the most notorious sex crime cases in South Korea – Welcome to Video (W2V) and the Nth Room – heavily relied on digital tools. Both previously operated by South Korean nationals, the former was the largest known child pornography website by volume of content, and the latter sold thousands of videos containing young women and children coerced into dehumanizing sexual acts and forced self-mutilation. Prior to joint governmental operations involving the United States, South Korea, and other countries to seize these websites, both platforms received substantial amounts of Bitcoin transactions signifying a financial goal to exploiting these victims.
Despite the successful seizure and shutdown of both W2V and the original Nth Room case-related networks, the number of reported digital sex crimes continue to rise in South Korea. Deemed the “Male Nth Room,” the recent case of a South Korean national exploiting young male children and adolescents online signals the need for greater government-funded research into the origins of this endemic. Starting in December 2011, the South Korean defendant, Kim Young-jun, allegedly masqueraded online as a woman to coerce 79 young men and adolescents into sending explicit photos and videos, which he later distributed and sold through the internet. On January 25, 2022, the Seoul Central District Court sentenced Kim to 10 years in prison and issued a 14.8 million won (roughly $12,360) fine for violating the Act on the Protection of Children and Youth Against Sex Offenders. However, Seoul still faces a growing digital sex crime endemic that endangers both young women and men.
One possible contributing factor could be South Korea’s traditionally weak, or weakly enforced, prison sentencing for sex offenders, which could otherwise dissuade individuals from committing these acts for fear of long-term imprisonment. Compared to the United States and other modern democratic countries, South Korea has a poor track record in adequately punishing sex offenders for their heinous crimes. For example, Seoul faced massive public outcry in 2020 from the South Korean public when Cho Doo-soon, a then-57-year old man who brutally raped an 8-year old girl inside a church bathroom, was released from prison after his sentence was reduced from 15 to 12 years. The court granted his sentence reduction due to a controversial interpretation of Article 10, Section 2 of the Criminal Act that South Korean courts have used to equate intoxication via alcohol as succumbing to a mentally impaired state, a claim that Cho used during his defense. As a result, this interpretation of South Korean law allows rapists and other sex offenders to avoid maximum penalties for their crimes simply by claiming they were intoxicated during the time of the assault.
Additionally, Article 14, Section 2 of the Act on Special Cases Concerning the Punishment of Sexual Crimes rules that those who commit sex crimes through electronic devices or cameras, which includes spycams, may only face a maximum prison sentence up to five years. In comparison to the United States, federal law allows for significantly longer sentences for sex crimes, especially when involving children, with cases ranging from 15 years to life in prison. These loopholes in South Korean legal frameworks raise the question of whom exactly sexual crime laws are intended to protect.
Instead of amending faulty legislation, Seoul has taken steps to restrict access to sexually explicit material through blanket bans and regulations on pornography websites. While increasing regulatory capabilities and restrictions on accessing these websites inside South Korea may initially limit access to unwanted material, it does not address the core issue behind individuals choosing to pursue deceptive and violent methods to view and/or obtain explicit content. Banning pornography websites will only help diversify the methods by which illicit actors create new ways to access explicit material through unregulated mediums, such as simply using a virtual private network (VPN) to circumvent country-specific restrictions or access the off-the-grid network of the dark web. If Seoul continues to focus mainly on band-aid solutions to these national scandals, it will only tarnish its international reputation and allow for future platforms to emerge that benefit from the sexual exploitation of vulnerable populations.