South Korea’s Women Failed by Police Treatment of Digital Sex Crimes

In August 2016, Kyung-mi (not her real name) first reported her ex-boyfriend, K-pop star
Jung Joon-young, to the police for filming them having sexual intercourse without her consent. At the time, Kyung-mi was a young student, aware of the risk of accusing a high-profile celebrity of digital sex crimes. Kyung-mi described how the police “said it was difficult to bring charges against a celebrity,” as well as during questioning, asking “weren’t you filmed because you liked it?” It was not until 3 years later that Jung Joon-young appeared in front of a judge. Despite Kyung-mi’s report in 2016, it was not until 2019, when police received a tip-off about videos on Jung Joon-young’s phone which were reportedly secretly filmed, that a warrant was issued for his arrest. The police found non-consensual videos of 12 women which had been shared by Jung Joon-young on a group chat with his celebrity friends.

Since Jung Joon-young’s arrest, Kyung-mi has been given some support.  However, she has described the online harassment she received at the time of the report in 2016, and the failure of the South Korean police to treat her report seriously. Human Rights Watch surveyed victims of digital sex crimes in South Korea, finding that there are serious barriers to justice. Globally, digital sex crimes are increasing due to the constant development of technology. Cameras can be designed to be small enough to be hidden in public bathrooms and changing rooms. The high-speed internet in South Korea means that videos and pictures can be downloaded, saved, and shared instantly. Between 2013 and 2018, 30,000 police reports were filed involving the use of hidden cameras.

Heather Barr, the author of the Human Rights Watch report, stated that “The survivors we interviewed had had pretty consistently horrible experiences with the police.” She added that “They had often been turned away, sometimes repeatedly.”

Barr’s report showed that many women were asked very personal questions in public spaces for hours, given the sole responsibility of finding enough evidence to press charges, as well as being pressured to retract their accusations with the threat of a criminal defamation prosecution if they refused to do so. Some women told Barr that their intimate images, needed as evidence, were handed around police stations and mocked by officers.

When the BBC contacted the South Korean police department, they responded with a written statement claiming they have implemented some steps to address the issues raised. These steps include a Cyber Sex Crime Investigation Team in every city and province, as well as a promise to educate police officers and assign same-sex officers to cases of digital sex crimes.

However, Barr stated that “In 2020, 79% of those convicted of filming without consent received a suspended sentence, a fine, or sometimes both.” In South Korea, filming and distributing non-consensual videos or images has a maximum sentence of 7 years, however, there is no minimum sentence. Barr argues that “it’s clear that the sentences being handed down now often don’t feel proportionate to the harm victims have suffered.”

Kyung-mi and Heather Barr are both campaigning for governmental change and legal protection for women who are victims of digital sex crimes in South Korea.