Nearly 97 people have been arrested in South Korea for their connection to the ‘nth rooms.’ These chatrooms located on the messaging app Telegram have created a cycle of pornography, where individuals would share videos of girls performing depraved sexual acts in return for payments via cryptocurrency. The girls featured included minors as young as 11. The age of consent in South Korea is 20.
Consequently, there has been strong public outrage, with petitions being asked to be signed so the justice system will release the true identities of those suspected, rather than being protected by anonymity. However, this ring is only the latest scandal in a country that struggles with a deep-rooted patriarchal system that has allowed for women to fall into a degrading and often violent sexual culture where there are few to no ramifications for those implicated.
The most prominent suspect in this scandal is the now arrested, Cho Joo-bin, a 24-year-old-man who operated the chat room. He allegedly sought victims, often girls who were runaways, by offering them modelling jobs but instead, would secure their personal information such as addresses, phone numbers, friend lists, and photos of their bodies. It has also been reported that some of these girls were ‘sold’ into the trade by their ‘boyfriends’ who would deliberately leak the girl’s information into these chatrooms. This information would then be used to blackmail the victims into filming and sending sexual acts such as carving the world ‘slave’ into their skin, inserting scissors into their vagina, eating faeces, cutting off nipples and even being raped by assigned people. These acts would be recorded and shared in these chatrooms which were followed by over 260,000 individuals.
Despite the scale on which these videos were seen, there was an absolute lack of reporting to the authorities. The 4W explains that in fact, out of the thousands who viewed this content only one-man Kim-Jae Su (name changed) contacted the authorities in February 2019. However, after the police showed no interest in investigating the case, Kim-Jae Su himself became a leader in one of the chatrooms.
This is a stark reminder that in many countries, crimes biased against women or those most vulnerable are often overlooked and underreported, and this needs to change. South Korea’s justice system is incredibly lenient on crimes regarding sexual exploitation, for example, anyone charged with sharing child or juvenile pornography can be imprisoned for a maximum of one year or face a fine of 20 million Korean won (USD 16,000). However, it is not considered an offence for those who consume porn without knowing that the subject in the videos is underage, thereby providing a loophole for many. Consequently, it is then unsurprising to find that according to the South Korean Prosecutors’ Office, between the years of 2015 to 2018, 3,449 individuals were charged with distributing sexually abusive videos of children, and yet only 80 received jail terms.
Combatting this issue requires addressing the highly misogynistic views society holds. In South Korea this is rampant. The country in 2018 ranked 188th out of 144 states by the World Economic Forum regarding gender equality. This position has not improved much when looking over the 2020 Global Gender Gap Index where South Korea has ranked 108 out of 153 nations. Therefore, a serious overhaul needs to happen now.
However, over the past two years South Korean women have demonstrated that they should no longer endure these actions. The ‘nth rooms’ is only the latest in a long line of sexual scandals women in Korea have faced. Previously, in 2018 some 70,000 women protested against the use of spy-cams or hidden cameras in public restrooms and changerooms holding signs saying, “My life is not your porn.” Similarly, in 2019 the Burning Sun scandal had come to light where it was found K-pop stars such as Seungri of boy group Big Bang had been involved with the drugging and raping of women in Gangnam clubs. The public has had enough, and this is evident from the amount petitions circulating to ensure the ‘nth room’ scandal is internationally investigated and that the perpetrators are not protected by the State.
To solve the issue not only does justice reform need to take place, but there is a need for educational initiatives to remove the social stigma around sex and the industry of sex-work. Seo Seung-Hee the head of Korea’s Cyber Sexual Response Centre stated that “the industrial structure that encourages people to believe they can make money by trading women and label victims ‘promiscuous women’ continues to cause such problems.”
The public outcry has demonstrated that it wants to see more action to ensure that these scandals never happen again. The Guardian reported that Min Gap-ryon the commissioner-general of the Korean National Police Academy stated that “through strict investigation, the police will entirely transform the social apathy to digital sex crime and strongly root out such crime from our society.” Only time will tell whether this will come true. However, what these scandals have demonstrated is the toxic misogynistic culture lurking in South Korea. To combat this the government must find a comprehensive plan not only to reform criminal law but to reform societal thinking and behaviour towards women and crimes of this nature.