> Cover Story
Attention for Digital Sex Crimes: A Push for Reform in South Korea
Son Hyeon-yoo & Seo Ji-an  |  hyeonyuson@hanyang.ac.kr& suhjian908@hanyang.ac.kr
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[346호] 승인 2020.06.01  
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Digital Sex Crimes Still Continue in South Korea

From spy cam to revenge pornography, there has been a wide range of sex trafficking videos that are taken and circulating online without the consent of those who appear in them. These videos that are widely recognized by society as pornography are far from capturing intercourse between consenting parties. Rather, they mostly contain varying degrees of violence and brutality also known as hardcore pornography or ‘hard porn’. A man who confessed to watching soft porn during a speech about digital sex crimes noted that he could not forget the woman’s emotional eyes towards the camera where she seemed to believe that she was filming a private video for her relationship. Similarly, the case of Korean pop star Goo Ha-ra’s ex-boyfriend threatening to spread their sex videos alerted the public to the epidemic of digital sex crimes in the shadows of South Korean society. Also, the former K-pop star Jung Joon-young’s group chat room case, where Jung shared illegal sex videos taken by himself in a group chat room for pleasure at the expense of his victims’ pain, incensed the public at the exploitation of women by digital sex crime perpetrators. What is even more devastating is that such dehumanizing crimes are still prevalent and continue to threaten victims.

The Latest Nth Room Scandal Re-Awakening the Awareness of Digital Sex Crimes in South Korea

Digital sex crimes refer to sexual assault crimes that involve spreading, blackmailing, saving photographs or videos without the consent of the person captured. The most prominent feature that characterizes this crime is the use of cyberspace. The illegal sex videos including ones taken secretly spread online or through social media by perpetrators and consumed by viewers. The anonymous consumption of sexual videos and images turns the online space into an inescapable hell for victims. The parameters of what constitutes digital sex crime pornography have been expanding due to the increased means of committing crimes in connection with enhanced technology and the availability of social media platforms. Most recently, the ‘Telegram Nth room and Baksa-Room case’ was made public by young students who were shocked after discovering hidden chat rooms on a social media platform called Telegram. The platform was used to sell and buy illegal sexually violent and exploitive videos of young women, including teenagers.

“#baksa-room_sexual_exploitation” Who is the Key Suspect?

Cho Joo-bin, a 24-year-old man who is one of the key operators of the Baksa-Room, allegedly sought victims by securing their personal information through their social media uploads and used it to blackmail victims into taking degrading photographs and videos of themselves. There were 74 victims, including 16 teenagers, who have been confirmed to be in the chat room which Cho operated. These videos and images were recorded and shared in numerous chatrooms. The chatrooms were then subscribed, and the posts were shared by over 260,000 individuals, the contents of which still remain online. Following Cho’s arrest, petitions posted on the presidential website to reveal the identities of the perpetrators received over five million signatures in less than a week. The police advised they would reveal the suspect’s identity by applying the Article 25 of the Special Cases Concerning the Punishment of Sex Crimes Act, which is significant because only the identity of murderers have been revealed in the past.

The Institutional Loopholes that Allow Digital Sex Crimes and Changes Currently Being Made

In addition to the outrage at the frequency of digital sex crime cases, what provoked even more anger from the public was that there was no law that punished people for owning or viewing illegal content unless it involved minors and only the owner of the content would be punished, with a maximum punishment of a year in prison or a fine up to 20 million won. Also, there were no regulations for people who downloaded illegal videos featuring adults, and only the creator or distributor would be punished. Accordingly, suspects who claimed that they had downloaded child porn “without knowing” have not been charged in the past. To combat this, the Nth Room Protection Act was recently enacted to strengthen punishments for both producers and consumers of illegal pornography. The newly enacted law punishes suspects who conspire in such acts even if they have not yet committed them. Those who possess, purchase, download, or watch illegal sexual footage will be sentenced up to three years in prison or fined up to 30 million won. Even if the victims filmed themselves, as in the Nth room case, there will be punishment of up to seven years in prison and a fine up to 50 million won if the footage is distributed. According to the 2019 case analysis on digital sex crime damage from both the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family and the Korea Women’s Human Rights Promotion Agency, the number of digital sex crime victims increased 1.5 times from 1,315 in 2018 to 1,936 in 2019, while the number of people who requested support from the Digital Sex Crime Victims Support Center increased 2.8 times in a year, from 33,921 to 96,052. Experts point out that the past precedents and cases of lenient punishment on the production and distribution of digital sex crimes made before the enactment of the Nth Room Prevention Act have contributed to the outbreak of the recent Nth room tragedy. They also stress that the subscribers of pornographic websites were simply ‘fined’ for distributing pornography under the Information and Communication Network Act or for possessing pornography under the Child and Youth Sex Protection Act which allowed a loophole for viewers to be exempted from heavy punishments as much as the creators. Professor Jang Seung-hyuk, from Hanyang University School of Law, explained that the sentencing standards need to be revised to impose heavier punishment onto perpetrators following the Criminal Law and the Punishment of Sexual Crimes Special Act which have been revised to increase the legal penalty. “When regarding crimes against human rights, the sentencing standards should be revised to refrain punishment reduction at the discretion of judges unless there are special circumstances. Only then can individual judges who do not recognize the seriousness of digital sex crimes be prevented from making lenient judgements on digital sex crimes,” he said. Light punishment failed to regulate the production and distribution of digital sexually exploitive material using new information and communication technologies such as web hard, dark web, and discord. Professor Jang stated that unlike in the past, sex crimes in the digital age have a high scalability of damage. Digital sex crimes, especially in cases like the Nth room where the footage is produced, shared, and distributed, are highly likely to reach many people and remain undeleted even over a long period of time. Such undeleted footage could be abused with technologies such as Deepfake, for example, which is a synthetic media in which a person in an existing image or video can be replicated onto someone else’s body and be used to create fake pornography.

Digital Sexual Crimes Fueled by Features of the Internet

Perpetrators commit such crimes by abusing a distinct feature of the Internet, a feature that enables them to stay anonymous and create a whole new character they can hide behind. Telegram, the company involved in the Nth room case, has not cooperated with the South Korean police and the Korea Communications Standards Commission regarding digital sex crimes, including the Nth room case, because their top priority is to secure the personal information of their users. Additionally, requesting the deletion of illegal footage through the app’s reporting window is the only way to communicate with Telegram. Thus, the police are facing difficulties as the location and server of the Telegram headquarters is unknown. Perpetrators hiding behind the masks of anonymity make it hard for the police to catch them. According to the analysis of 2019 digital sex crime support cases, 49 percent of the perpetrators are difficult to identify. This is mainly because 90 percent of digital sex crimes are distributed through foreign servers and platforms, and foreign businesses are not required to distribute personal information when requested by law enforcement.

Skewed Social Consciousness Towards Sex, Gender, and Sexual Content: Problematic in the Face of Increasing Digital Sex Crimes

After the revelations of the digital sex crimes that entailed serious dehumanization of the targeted women, the public have shown mixed reactions. While some expressed surprise and shock about the reveal of dark corners within a seemingly civilized South Korean society, others stressed that the recent incident was clearly predictable given the long-standing history of the cultural consumption of women as submissive subjects via various sections of society such as media or structural social prejudices. The latter group of people pointed out similar past domestic cases that have gradually sunk into oblivion without apparent social reform, om the Jung Joon-young digital chat room case to the latest accusations of online sex trafficking rife on Soranet and countless relevant incidents. In this sense, the Nth room case can be deemed as one of many cases that raised social awareness by looking back at society’s gender sensitivity. Whenever digital sex crimes were spotlighted in the headlines, the prevalent media images that objectified women and social misperceptions towards illegal sexually exploitative videos – wrongfully considered them as consensual pornography – were criticized; despite the fact that pornography itself is illegal in South Korea. However, the additional recent outbreak of a sexual deviance case and the Nth room case have made it clear to the South Korean public that there is still a long way to go towards a sexually exploitation-free society. According to the Citizen’s Crime Prevention Group (CCPG), which consists of four young adults who created a website that publicizes information regarding the Nth room case, the current sex education taught in public schools is unrealistic and ineffective, and is one of the factors that contributes to the increasing digital sex crimes. “The sex education carried out in schools is mostly perfunctory and does not raise genuine interest from students. Students rarely pay attention to the lectures and rather turn to online sources in order to gain information about sex.” said one of the members of the CCPG. The interviewee’s words emphasized the holes in the current sex education curriculum in that the education which should rightfully and explicitly deliver realistic information about sex and gender for students is being done poorly. The interviewee also added, “We must eradicate digital sex crimes in our society especially when considering underaged teenagers. They are exposed to continuously dangerous and sexually exploitative threats and misperceptions about sexual relationships delivered via illegal sex videos that are prevalent on the Internet.” Overall, the interviewee warned about the impact of the Internet on teenagers that easily opens spaces for sexual crimes and highlighted the heavy responsibility on adults to facilitate an online environment for crime prevention. However, the ineffective sex education carried out for teenagers are not only South Korea’s problem, but universally spread issue. Also, the rapid development of Internet and the worldwide spread of technology and social medias further exacerbates the skewed understanding about sex and gender sensitivity among the world’s young students. Therefore, concluding that the ineffective sex education is the fundamental basis of the problematic social structure that led to the current extent of digital sex crimes could be a hasty conclusion. Rather, the cause of the issues would be more comprehensive in that people’s awareness, legal standards, social medias that spread skewed information about sex are all combined when it comes to the cause of digital sex crime prevalence. However, as a member of CCPG mentioned, improving the quality of sex education would still have impacts on student’s gender sensitivity and understanding of sex in more realistic and constructive ways in the face of the Nth room case incident and the status quo of South Korea. Meanwhile, it is also important to note that merely focusing on improving the quality of sex education could not completely handle the issues and crimes of producing, spreading, selling, and consuming illegal sexual contents. Likewise, the school and government’s effort to improving sex education should be accompanied by other crucial efforts like strengthening legal punishments. The interviewee also added that, “We must eradicate digital sex crimes in our society especially when considering under aged teenagers. They are continuously exposed to dangerous and sexually exploitative threats and misperceptions delivered via illegal sex videos that are prevalent on the Internet.” Overall, the interviewee warned about the impact of the internet on teenagers that easily opens up space for sexual crimes and highlighted the heavy responsibility on adults to facilitate an online environment for crime prevention.

Shifted Public’s Focus From a Holistic View of Digital Sex Crimes to Particular Offenders Leads to Delays in Social Reform

Meanwhile, “scapegoat phenomenon” – a term that refers to a particular figure or a group that is blamed by the majority for socially debated problems – has arisen as another issue. As the personal information of some operators in sexually exploitative chat rooms was leaked to the public, critics pointed out that some people were mistakenly focusing too much on a few offenders while shifting away from the essential problems that still remained in society. According to one of the reporters from the Kookmin Ilbo’s Nth Room Special Investigation team, “Cho Joo-bin’s selfidentification as ‘devil’ backfired within society and allowed many to believe that the perpetrators of digital sex crimes were distinct from ordinary people. It is a serious issue that some people might be misguided by his words to believe that sexually exploitative video makers are devil-like or socially separate figures. When in truth, the perpetrators could be hidden anywhere among our  communities and be among those with whom we have daily connections with.” As the reporter noted, it would be tragic if more and more people accepted the idea that the perpetrators were devils and far removed from ordinary people, as it could unconsciously lead people to think that those devils’ actions could be overlooked as they were born to be devils, not humans. Instead, the public should acknowledge that the offenders are hidden by anonymity and continue to pay attention to the persistent digital sex crimes. To prevent the spread of such misperceptions, the media’s role should be to deliver news that includes crucial insights needed for the audience or readers to see directly into the problem and keep their thoughts balanced and provide the correct information. Accordingly, the public should try to understand the multifaceted aspects of digital sex crime issues from a critical perspective rather than being one-sided. For instance, the opinion of some political figures that argues about how the Nth room case is triggered by men who consume of consensual pornography designed to fuel their sexual desires should not be measured on the same scale with the opinion of legitimately raising objections to illegal sexual trafficking. This is because the former opinion is misinformed about the case in that the Nth room case is not merely a pornography consumption issue, but a case that entailed serious dehumanization and assault of victims that could leave permanent trauma throughout their lives. Likewise, the public should not be misguided by an asymmetrical comparison but rather have balanced thoughts when making judgements on social issues.

Call-to-Action for Hanyangians to Be the Best for a Better World

There are various ways to support the victims and facilitate change to the prevalent digital sex crimes culture in today’s society: it is to not consume, and to feel anger against the crime and the offenders on the victims’ behalf. Seo Jihyun, a prosecutor who was selected as ideal to punish the Nth room perpetrators by over two hundred thousand signatures on a blue house petition called, “Please create an all-female special investigation team for the Nth room case, led by prosecutor Seo Ji-hyun,” mentioned that our social support could help victims and encourage changes during an interview with the media. Likewise, we are able to encourage victims to return to their normal lives and reduce their psychological trauma which derived from their fear of being perceived as voluntary participants in the crime or sexually open people from pessimists. It is important to bear in mind the three distinct characteristics of digital sex crimes: the illegal sex contents could be temporarily hidden, reuploaded, and downloaded. Therefore, victims are not free from the fear of their videos being shown online repeatedly, putting them in a cycle of vulnerability. Nonetheless, as more people understand the victims’ stance and express empathy, they would feel empowered to confront the threat and free themselves from fear. Digital sex crimes result from the combination of lenient institutional responses, high technology that is easily accessible to be used for crimes, and ignorance on gender issues. The hidden offenders have been growing via the loopholes of society. However, if hidden figures like Hanyangians continue to pay attention, keep an eye on the issue and try to be the best for a better world, we could make a better society where victims are supported.

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