But still, the crimes haven’t stopped: How public anger changed South Korean society (part 3)(10)
2023.03.30 16:03 Mariko Tsuji
Cooling public anger, limited investigative capacity, and an inability to crack down on overseas platforms means that, despite changes, digital sex crimes are still rampant in South Korea.
I began reporting on how South Korean police and politicians, driven by citizens’ demands, are working seriously to address digital sex crimes because I thought South Korea could serve as a model for Japan. However, as I interviewed victim support groups, which had played a role in the related legal reform, and journalists who had worked hard to report this issue, I realized the situation was not as simple as I had originally imagined.
In 2022, a new digital sex crime, know as the “L case,” came to light.
Why, even after the Nth Room case was dealt with, do similar crimes continue?
Crimes carried out on apps children use
ReSET, an all-women citizens’ group, was established in the wake of the Nth Room case. Its members use pseudonyms, and the organization does not reveal its structure or the number of members. ReSET monitors websites and chat rooms on platforms such as Telegram and reports any sexual abuse it finds there to the police and platform operators. Among the various national petitions that resulted in legal reform, ReSET’s petition to the National Assembly was the first.
The petition called for fundamental countermeasures to end digital sex crimes. However, sexual abuse similar to the Nth Room case continues. Under the guises of police or activists, some have even made malicious attempts to obtain the personal information of victims who have spoken out.
The organization Stand Up Against Sex-Trafficking of Minors, which works to protect teenagers from sexual exploitation, is also frequently contacted by minors who have become victims of digital sex crimes. Even after the Nth Room case was addressed, the perpetrators moved to other platforms and continued their crimes.
“Sexual exploitation is happening on any platform that has a chat function,” said Kwon Juri, the center’s executive director. “Perpetrators are participating in and committing crimes on digital tools commonly used by children, such as apps for selling used goods or gaming.”
In 2022, a new digital sex crime, the “L case,” came to light. A perpetrator masquerading as an activist called “L” contacted victims and forced them, through hacking and threats, to send him sexually explicit images, which he then disseminated. Junior high and even elementary school students have been among the victims identified so far.
Telegram was also used in the L case.
Kwon Juri, executive director of Stand Up Against Sex-Trafficking of Minors. Photo taken on Feb. 8, 2023, by Mariko Tsuji.
Foreign corporations untouchable
Why do similar crimes continue to occur?
The first point is the authorities’ inability to crack down on platforms based overseas. Even though relevant laws have been revised, overseas platforms are not subject to their regulations.
In both the Nth Room and L cases, the perpetrators used Telegram. But, as a company created in Russia and now based in Dubai, UAE, Telegram has faced no legal responsibility following these incidents. There wasn’t even a police investigation.
However, South Korea has some means to take action against foreign operators. If a foreign operator does not respond to a request to remove images, access to its platform can be blocked in South Korea.
Although this might seem like a potential breakthrough, the actual situation is more complicated. If users access the internet via a VPN or other method using an overseas server, the block quickly becomes meaningless.
Digital sex crimes cross national borders, and many perpetrators divert their IP address to foreign countries to avoid being identified. Therefore, simply blocking domestic access to a given platform is not a true solution to the problem.
The fact that only a few large corporations are subject to regulation is another reason why these crimes continue. For example, the “Telecommunications Business Act” obligates platform operators to take measures to prevent the distribution of illegal photographed materials. However, the law only applies to certain businesses, such as those “with an average of 100,000 or more users per day,” and so smaller platforms aren’t bound by it.
In addition to the authorities’ inability to crack down on platforms, police investigations into perpetrators of sexual exploitation have slowed.
“Since the Nth Room case ended, police investigations have become more lax once again,” said Hankyoreh reporter Oh Yeon-seo. ReSET, which shares the evidence of sexual abuse it finds with the police, usually has to wait at least two weeks to a month for a response. They said that, by that time, the links used in the crimes have often already been removed.
ReSET members said they have been told by the police “We can’t catch them anyway, so we’re closing the investigation.”
Public anger cooling
In addition to the inadequacy of laws to regulate platforms and the police’s limited capacity to investigative cross-border digital sex crimes, what I found most serious was that society’s anger was cooling. If people start to tolerate digital sex crimes, there is no hope for further legislation or improved police investigative capacity.
Regarding Korean society’s declining interest in digital sex crimes following the conclusion of the Nth Room case, a member of ReSET said that “Awareness of digital sex crimes was low to begin with, and only a few ‘unique’ cases, like the Nth Room case, attracted attention. However, the reality is that methods similar to the Nth Room case have been repeated in the past and continue today.”
Not only has public interest dropped, but activists have also been harassed. ReSET has been falsely reported to be “unfairly receiving financial support from government agencies.” When the group opened a chatroom to recruit new members, the space was invaded and members sexually harassed. Others have pretended to be ReSET members and tried to collect donations.
ReSET is not the only group affected. Stand Up Against Sex-Trafficking of Minors is also constantly vigilant for harassment and does not have a nameplate on its office building.
“The essence of the Nth Room case is discrimination against women, which is deeply rooted in Korean society,” a ReSET member said. “In order to prevent further crimes, there is an urgent need to change society’s perceptions. As long as there are people who can consume sexually exploitative materials without feeling guilty, it will be difficult to eradicate such crimes.”
To be continued.
(Originally published in Japanese on March 22, 2023.)
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