Cyber epidemic: South Korea and its problem with cyber-sex crimes
Illustration Credit: Matteo

South Korea is currently facing a cyber sex-crime epidemic.

One of the most prominent sex crimes is molka, a term meaning hidden camera in Korean. Molka footage includes but is not limited to ‘upskirting’, the placing of hidden cameras in public spaces from hotel rooms to public toilets and filming sexual acts without one of the members knowing. There have even been reported instances where perpetrators placed cameras on their shoes to get ‘upskirting’ shots. The blame for such crimes, some experts have claimed, is due to the country’s ban on the dissemination of pornographic content and the fast internet speed.

Once these illegal molka videos have been filmed, they are spread online through forums and subscription-based websites. One of the largest examples of this was a site called Soranet, which obtained one million users. Many victims of Soranet lost their jobs due to the footage spread of them or for their attendance in protests. In some cases, many lost their lives due to suicide.

84% of victims subject to illegal filming have been revealed as females. Those prosecuted for these crimes, however, were 98% male.

A worrying fact is that these crimes have been increasing year-on-year. In 2017, over 5400 people were arrested for molka related offences. One big issue regarding this statistic, however, is that only 2% of these perpetrators were actually jailed. In addition, the identities of the majority of the perpetrators are protected. The insufficient sentencing of criminals has been a focus for the many organised movements that have arisen in protest.

Many molka cases have gained traction but none as much as The Burning Sun scandal and the Nth Room case. These two cases made headlines worldwide. The Burning Scandal uncovered the elitist and celebrity ties within the spycam realm whereas the Nth Room case uncovered the scale and severity of such issues in everyday society with children being involved on both the victim and perpetrator sides.

The combination of the severity of these crimes with minimal response from Korean law enforcers leads to devastating results. This insufficient approach in tackling crimes leaves the women of Korea feeling unsafe in everyday life. A simple visit to a public restroom could ruin their lives.

With worldwide press involved, the Korean law enforcers need to set a precedent and provide adequate sentencing in alignment with public demand. Cyber-sex criminals are often given short sentences, but with newfound interest from the public, will this change?

The Burning Sun scandal was the original case that brought about public attention to cyber-sex crimes bringing about a new level of distaste to the forefront to public knowledge.

The ‘Burning Sun’ scandal

The ‘Burning Sun’ scandal revolved around various revelations surrounding the Gangnam Club, Burning Sun. This club was associated heavily with Seungri, a former member of the boy group Big Bang, a group that earned millions in the entertainment industry prior to Seungri’s involvement. Seungri was paraded in front of the media, as his actions shook Korean society.

Revelations from this case resulted in the arrest of seven successful K-Pop stars, charges ranging from ‘drug possession to group sexual assault’. Not all have been indicted, however. Cases of police bribery were rife throughout, instances tracing back to 2016. The scandal involved other names such as Jung Joon-young, a prominent variety and musical star, as well as rock group FTISLAND’s Choi Jonghoon.

The group of seven celebrity friends used KakaoTalk, the South Korean equivalent to WhatsApp, to send molka footage. This scandal is not the first time members were accused of illegally filming sex acts. Jung Joon-young was accused once in 2016 though his agency supported Jung by clarifying that what occurred was a ‘small misunderstanding’. Police corruption was also involved with police suspiciously claiming that evidence from Jung’s phone couldn’t be restored.

Accusations of illegal filming and distribution within Jung’s group of accomplices dates back to 2015 with there being ten known victims. By March, Jung had confessed to illegally filming sex acts and distributing them retiring from the entertainment industry. The other members followed suit, with the lead singer of FTISLAND denouncing his former bandmate.

After Jung’s arrest, he admitted to all charges, including the destruction of evidence. Seungri was also booked, admitting to spreading the footage but not for filming it.

The prosecution continued and more accusations were reported. A woman came forward to SBS funE identifying Jung and Choi as two of the five men that raped her after being date-raped. The victim provided evidence from a group chat with an audio file and photos. The discussions in the group chat describing the perpetrators’ encounter with the victim were allegedly mocking and humiliating.

As more national coverage arose, past investigations were reopened in regards to events at the Burning Sun club. The cases included the illegal filming and distribution of illegally obtained sexual videos from 14 VIP patrons at the club.

By November Choi’s and Jung’s fates had been finalised. Both faced charges of gang-rape and the illegal filming and distribution of sexual acts. Jung and Choi were sentenced to sentences of  six years and five years respectively. For rehabilitation, the two have to attend 80 hours of sexual violence education.

Others involved and jailed includes a former police officer who accepted a bribe for investigations into allegations of minors entering the club- he received one year. Various others were arrested for drug trafficking and possession.

It is quite shocking that even with serious drug trafficking charges, the sentencing is incredibly low. The smoking of marijuana for Korean citizens is severe, one can get sentenced to five years in prison — this includes smoking abroad. Even with the addition of trafficking charges and gang-rape, none of those involved got this level of sentencing.

As Seungri was the biggest name involved, his face was plastered all over the media, as his image was initially relatively positive. His investigation has been extended further but has now been indicted without detention for his alleged involvement of soliciting prostitutes for the club and habitual gambling.

With the indictment occurring in January 2020, his trial is now approaching. It is rumoured that his trial will occur in military court, due to his mandatory enlistment.

The Burning Sun scandal is far from being over. The corruption that emerged followed on with the discovery of the Nth Room case. The epidemic continues.

The Nth Room

The Nth Room scandal brought nationwide fear and, as it appeared back-to-back with the revelations of Burning Sun, displayed the severity of the crises that had arisen.  Cybercrimes were no longer an issue to be passive about.

The Nth Room users used the encrypted messaging service Telegram. The original chat rooms called the ‘Nth Room’ appeared on the messaging service as early as 2018. Users used aliases and private information gained illegally to go underdetected on the service. There were over 260,000 users over 56 chat groups, with many paying to view illegally obtained sexual videos. The frightening fact is that the full scale of operations is still unknown.

The group chats were used to spread molka footage of victims, as well as footage and lives of what users referred to as ‘slaves’. Users illegally produced and spread footage of dehumanising and sexual content of the victims. Sexual assaults, rapes and dehumanising content was turned into entertainment for those willing to pay. Each chat that appeared after had different names, in accordance to the different variations of footage available. Groups included were ‘female child room’ and ‘‘slave room’ among others.

The victims were forced to conduct various dehumanising sexual acts – such as barking like a dog. They were also told to give their real personal details, endangering themselves and their livelihoods as the perpetrators could blackmail them.

 It has been revealed that at least 74 women and 16 children were victims of this treatment.

Teenagers aged between twelve and seventeen were involved in managing copycat chat rooms, as well as selling and distributing the videos. This exposes the severity of the issue.

Many Korean citizens look negatively towards the prosecution system for such crimes such as those seen in this case as the sentences are far too minor. One of the original creators of the Nth Room, nicknamed ‘Watchman’, was sentenced to a mere 42 months. This wasn’t even his first arrest, he had previously received a suspended sentence for pornography distribution.

This wasn’t the first case for a perpetrator of a sexual crime to have their identity disclosed. One of the first to be revealed was Cho Joo-Bin, the man behind the ‘Doctor’s Room’, an exclusive and developed version of other Nth rooms.

The ‘Doctor’s Room’ was only available for those who paid in cryptocurrency, fees ranged from $200- $1200. Cho created job listings on social media to gain personal information from the women who applied, then he blackmailed them, forcing the women to perform sexual acts. The videos were often posted with their names and addresses.

To reach these exclusive rooms, gateway chats were used. Users had to upload their own sexual abuse videos and pictures  to ‘prove themselves’ worthy of these rooms. On the chats were spy cam footage, videos of their acquaintances and deep-fake pornography.

Other founding members have also been identified. Police identified and posted mugshots of the original founder of the Nth rooms, nicknamed ‘God God’, a 24 year-old student called Moon Hyung-Wook. Police stated that “the vicious and repetitive nature of his alleged crimes’ contributed to the public identification in this case.

The Korean prosecution system has a heavy focus on rehabilitation despite the severity of crimes. However, it seems that this case may be the catalyst for change, as the Korean public are standing firm against light sentencing. This is especially prominent due to the repetitive nature of the crimes- such as previous arrests for porn distribution.

Despite the public uproar, unfortunately, the original creator was only sentenced to 42 months.

In Korean law, producers of child porn can receive up to a life sentence, however this is almost never the reality. In 2017, the average sentence for such crimes was only two years, according to the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family.

This law hadn’t extended to other cyber-sex crimes until 2018. The Supreme Court extended sex crime legislation to include beyond person-to-person assaults. In 2020, the National Assembly worked on bills focussing primarily on digital sex crimes and the prosecution of such. A minimum sentence of three years or a 30 million won fine (£20,000) can be handed out to anyone who ‘possesses, stores or watches illegally-filmed sexual content’.

Laws like these were added as the previous law left a “legal grey area”. Their specific crimes of forcing the victims to violate themselves, as seen in this case,  were never specifically addressed previously.

Therefore, work is still to be done, especially as the sentencing of Nth room members is still ongoing.

Spycam epidemic

Sexual crimes aren’t limited to just these two cases. Korea has faced a wave of every-day cybersex crimes using spycams. One of the biggest examples of this would be where four men were arrested after being accused of filming 1600 hotel guests in ten different cities and selling this content online. They managed to capture footage by fixing 1mm lens cameras into hair-dryer holders and plug sockets.

It has been reported the four arrested men earned money from 97 paying members before the expose. The men obtained this money as the members paid for the molka footage. The same report also revealed that over 803 videos were released. They even allowed for free 30-second clips to be distributed with paying guests allowed access to full videos.

This case shows the increasing severity in the breaching of security and privacy upon the Korean public – anybody could be a victim.

 President Moon has called for tougher penalties, even announcing measures that would include funding for “detection in schools, public toilets, toilets of private companies, airports and bus and train terminals.

A variety of people are being arrested for spy cam crimes regardless of their position in society, perpetrators ranging from a mega-church pastor to the members of the national swimming team. A clinical pathologist even allegedly filmed the female employee’s changing room. A few months after his arrest, a woman was found dead after finding out she had been filmed without her knowledge as it caused her to have repeated “nightmares and trauma”. Spy cam crimes are killing victims.

Public response

Protests against molka distribution and cyber sex-crimes have garnered great traction in recent years. The first protest in 2018 boasted a 12,000 women turnout. The protest in August of that year was even bigger, with 70,000 women in attendance. The main message of the protest — ‘my life is not your porn’.

As well as protests, community projects have formed to protect their citizens against molka crimes an example being the Red Circle. This volunteer-led project was initiated by university students and local Southern Gyeonggi province police. The Red Circle project distributes posters to local businesses and cafes that declare their premises as being free of spycams equally supporting the eradication of these crimes.

However, these efforts do not mean that all Korean people are in support of such movements and initiatives. A Korean Press Foundation survey discovered that only “50% of women and 20% of men supported the protesters’ cause’.

In a survey conducted by The News Lens, results showed that 13.88% of people surveyed have personally have watched a molka video, with the majority of this percentage being male.

The fight for women’s rights and the privacy of thousands is still an ongoing cause that is gaining traction.

Law and prosecution

Between 2012 and 2016, 26,000 victims of molka footage were identified by police, however, there are many victims who never find out they’ve been filmed. Figures are likely to be much higher.

In 2018, 6800 molka cases were reported to police, a third of these were “referred for trial”, and it is reported that “fewer than one in ten trials led to a prison sentence”. That’s about 5% of perpetrators serving time.

The history of violence towards women in Korea isn’t a new sensation. Opinions regarding feminism are especially looked down upon. A 23-year-old woman was stabbed to death by a man claiming he “hated women for belittling him”. This cycle needs to be broken, whether through more intensive gender studies education or through tougher sentencing, change is needed.

To remove the hatred of the idea of ‘feminism’ as well as gaining a better understanding of gender sensitivity may provide the catalyst for support of molka protest movements.

Laws are starting to change, starting to adapt to the new wave of sex crimes that have been made possible due to technological advancements of recent years. This change in law brings hope to all those who could be a potential victim in Korea, it sets a precedent of understanding the severity of cyber crimes. This is the start of tougher sentences on those who have ruined the lives of thousands.

Public perceptions are starting to slowly change with more people wishing for appropriate action to be taken to prevent these crimes from happening to themselves, their family, friends, colleagues and partners.

Will justice be served?