South Korea is reeling from yet another serious sexual abuse scandal.
Korean police have identified dozens of victims, including minors, linked to pay-to-view chat rooms operated on chat app Telegram, which distributed videos of middle school girls performing grotesque sexual acts and self harm. The videos were often posted with the girls’ names and addresses. According to one newspaper report, one user even live-streamed himself raping a girl after luring her to a motel room.
The story first came to light through a report in Korean newspaper Hankyoreh (link in Korean) last November. An ensuing Kookmin Ilbo report (link in Korean) in early March further detailing the horrific acts stoked a nationwide outcry. It comes just months after the uncovering of the Burning Sun scandal, which implicated K-pop stars in a prostitution ring in Seoul, and as anger continues to simmer over other forms of sexual abuse against women including widespread spy-cam crimes.
Reporters at Kookmin Ilbo observed about 25,000 users across 30 such chat rooms. Customers paid up to 1.5 million Korean won ($1,200) to get access to the coveted few “nth rooms,” as those rooms are called, where content extorted from underage victims was uploaded in real time. To gain access to these primary outlets, one had to first “prove” themselves in a secondary gateway chatroom by uploading their own sexual abuse content and sharing misogynistic comments.
The Korea Cyber Sexual Violence Response Center also said that it has counted at least 260,000 users in 56 chat rooms where users shared extorted content, as well as spy-cam images or photos of female acquaintances. Some of the content was created by the users themselves, and included deep fake pornography.
According to the Kookmin Ilbo report, each of the eight nth rooms hosted videos that had been extorted from three to four different girls blackmailed by chat room operators. The girls were often runaway teenagers who were active on chat apps or Twitter and engaged in prostitution or sexting for money. The chat room operators contacted the girls through those accounts, and then promised them quick and high-paying modelling or escort gigs. They were then directed to a Telegram account where the abuser slowly extracted their names, phone numbers, addresses, friend lists, and photos of their bodies, which were later used to blackmail them into filming and sending sexual acts that often bordered on torture.
Police have so far arrested 97 people in connection to these Telegram chat rooms.
One of the underage victims said she was extorted for over 40 sexual abuse videos while she was a middle school student in 2018.
“I developed bipolar disorder and depression. I felt like I was being stalked. I couldn’t let anyone recognize me so I bundled up my whole face and body whenever I went outside, even in summer,” she told Korea’s CBS radio (link in Korean) today. “It drives me nuts, thinking I could wake up to tens of thousands of KakaoTalk messages the next morning with my video spread all over social media,” she said, referring to Korea’s most popular chat app.
The public response has been massive. Over 2.3 million people (link in Korean) have signed a petition on the presidential Blue House website calling for authorities to publicly name and reveal the face of the suspect who led the criminal operations, the most signatures ever garnered on a Blue House petition.
Police have identified the suspect as a 24-year-old recent graduate who was the editor-in-chief of his college newspaper. Over 1.6 million people (link in Korean) also signed a separate petition calling for identities of every user of these chat rooms to be made public. Yesterday, president Moon Jae-in ordered a thorough investigation into all chat room members.
Encrypted chat rooms with foreign servers like Telegram are used in Korea as alternatives to porn sites or online file-sharing drives for distributing such content, as many such sites have been shut down in recent years following massive rallies against spy-cam porn and stronger government scrutiny. These Telegram chat rooms also accepted bitcoin in order to cover users’ tracks. They could also be easily deleted and re-formed on a regular basis to throw off authorities.
Experts fear the perpetrators will simply move onto a different platform and continue their activities there.
Seo Ji-hyeon, a prosecutor who spoke out about her experience of sexual harassment from a superior at work in 2018 and sparked the country’s #MeToo movement, says little will change unless the country treats digital sex crimes as problems of “sextortion, human trafficking, and sexual violence,” rather than just illegal porn.
“I’ve seen horrible cases of (digital) sexual violence as a prosecutor. We have seen countless numbers of similar crimes before,” Seo said during a meeting yesterday with ruling party lawmakers in her role as the justice ministry’s gender equality consultant. “But who was ever properly punished?”
Digital sexual crimes often end with a warning or light sentences in South Korea. According to government data, 3,439 people were arrested between 2015 and 2018 for creating and distributing child-related porn. Only 479 were indicted and 80 received jail sentences.
In November last year, a 31-year-old man received a one year jail term for for selling sexual abuse videos involving children and teenagers through Telegram. Last week, prosecutors recommended a sentence of three years and six months for “Watchman,” one of the key ringleaders of the Telegram nth rooms.
The justice ministry also apologized to victims, and vowed to raise the maximum jail sentence for digital sex crimes and possibly treat the Telegram chat room members as an organized crime ring in its indictment.
“Digital sexual violence is a serious crime that can destroy a person’s life,” the ministry said in a statement today.
“But due to our lack of punishment and response, we failed to stand by the victims.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article inaccurately stated that prosecutors had sentenced, rather than recommended a sentence, for a ringleader of the chat rooms.