Digital sex crimes, including the illegal capture and sharing of images of girls and women, remain widespread in South Korea and often go unprosecuted, according to a report from Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Wednesday.
The report by the New York-based rights watchdog, “My Life is Not Your Porn: Digital Sex Crimes in South Korea,” found that victims face deeply entrenched obstacles in pursuing justice in South Korean courts.
“Officials in the criminal legal system – most of whom are men – often seem to simply not understand, or not accept, that these are very serious crimes,” Heather Barr, interim co-director of women’s rights at Human Rights Watch and author of the report, said in a statement. “Survivors are forced to deal with these crimes for the rest of their lives – with little assistance from the legal system.”
Secret filming using spycams in public places such as restrooms has been a major issue in South Korea in recent years, prompting a series of large-scale street protests by women in 2018.
“Unfortunately, South Korea has been a leader in digital sex crimes,” Lina Yoon, a senior researcher for the Asia division of Human Rights Watch, said at an online press conference Wednesday.
Yoon said the country’s high-speed Internet access and early smartphone adoption, coupled with pervasive gender inequality, have contributed to the rampant nature of the crimes.
“It’s a huge problem and an urgent crisis for South Korean women and girls,” she said.
The report draws on the accounts of several women, including Lee Ye-rin, whose employer gifted her a clock that contained a tiny hidden camera. Lee later discovered that the clock had been streaming footage from her bedroom 24 hours a day to her employer’s smartphone.
“I cried all night, I couldn’t sleep, I had to take medicine to soothe myself,” she said. “What happened took place in my own room — so sometimes, in regular life, in my own room, I feel terrified without reason.”
South Korea was early to create a market for illicit digital images, leading to cases such as “Nth room,” a network of online chat rooms in which some 260,000 paid members shared videos of sexual violence that were acquired through coercion and blackmail.
The case, which went public in 2020, caused widespread outrage and led to the arrests of 124 suspects, including ringleader Cho Joo-bin who was sentenced to 40 years in prison in November.
NUMBER OF CASES RISING
The number illegal filming cases has skyrocketed, going from 585 in 2008 to more than 6,600 by 2017, according to Wednesday’s report. However, many digital sex crimes still go unprosecuted or are met with minor or suspended sentences.
In 2019, prosecutors dropped 44 percent of sexual digital crime cases, according to the report, compared with 28 percent of homicide cases and 19 percent of robbery cases. Sentencing is also lenient, with 79 percent of those convicted of capturing intimate images without consent receiving suspended sentences, fines or a combination.
In many cases, victims of the crimes report being traumatized for years afterward.
A 20-year-old aspiring model, Oh Soo-jin, agreed to do some nude modeling for a group of photographers and signed a contract stating the images wouldn’t be shared. However, some 700 images of her later appeared for sale online. Even though she went to the police, the posting wasn’t removed from the Internet and more images continued to appear.
“It’s going to always be on someone’s computer, and I don’t know when this will stop,” Oh said, according to the report. “[I thought] ‘I want this to stop but this problem will never end… So if this cant stop, I want to stop my life.’ Which is committing suicide.”
Digital sex crimes have contributed to several reports of suicide, including the high-profile case of K-pop star Goo Hara, who killed herself in 2019 after an ex-boyfriend blackmailed her with sex videos he had made without her consent.
The HRW report says problems victims face are exacerbated by a lack of women police, prosecutors and judges and are fueled by deeply entrenched attitudes toward women in South Korea.
“Women and girls who have been the target of digital sex crimes face major barriers to justice,” the report states. “Police often refuse to accept their complaints and behave in abusive ways, including minimizing harm, blaming them, treating images insensitively and engaging in inappropriate interrogation.”
The survivors that Human Rights Watch interviewed consistently spoke of “terrible experiences” with police, Barr said.
HRW says in the wake of the 2018 street protests, the South Korean government took steps to reform laws around digital sex crimes and improve services available to survivors, but these have not gone far enough.
The report calls on South Korean authorities to make changes that include revamping laws to help victims access greater civil remedies, increasing training for law enforcement and improving sexual education in schools. But ultimately, it says, the deeper root of gender inequality must be addressed by the government before digital sex crimes will be truly impacted.
“The root cause of digital sex crimes in South Korea is widely accepted harmful views about and conduct toward women and girls that the government urgently needs to address,” Barr said. “The government has tinkered with the law but has not sent a clear and forceful message that women and men are equal, and misogyny is unacceptable.”