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The Peninsula

2021 in Review: South Korea’s Battle with Digital Sex Crimes

Published December 29, 2021
Author: Haeryun Kang
Category: South Korea

This is the ninth in a 10 part series looking at how the issues identified in KEI’s annual “10 Issues to Watch for on the Korean Peninsula” series developed in 2021. The original “10 Issues” piece can be found here.

When it comes to digital sex crimes in South Korea, it feels irresponsible to designate any specific “turning point” about a problem so messy and deeply ingrained.

Digital sex crimes have steadily been on the rise over the past few decades; predictably so, as the online world becomes inseparable from our lives. As more women fall victim to images that secretly objectify and exploit their bodies for pornographic consumption and reproduction, we have seen more and more “turning points” emerge in public consciousness, alerting us to the severity of the problem.

All of the following moments are frequently seen as such points, generating media hype and heightened public awareness: the 2016 closure of Soranet, a massive website exchanging secretly filmed footages of women, among other heinous crimes; the 2018 protests in Seoul, which saw tens of thousands of women on the streets calling for an end to “spycam pornography”; the 2020 arrest and prosecution of the men who ran Telegram chats exploiting and even enslaving women, including minors.

In 2021, the Korean police recorded over 16,800 cases of digital sex crimes, a 17% jump from the previous year. There are many possible layers behind this statistic: in general, COVID-19 has led to more people spending time online, increasing the overall number of incidences. But law enforcement has also put more resources into uncovering digital sex crimes, finding more cases.

These moments are certainly significant. Thanks to them, over the past few years, the phrase “digital sex crimes” has become a fixture in the Korean language, inviting heated and nuanced discourse. In the past few years, multiple laws have been passed in response to growing public attention, including removing the statute of limitations on the production, importation or exportation of sexually exploitative material depicting minors; fines and prison sentences being introduced for online grooming; legally authorizing police to conduct undercover investigations, etc.

It would be unfair to say the Korean government has done nothing, but its measures have garnered widespread criticism. Human Rights Watch released a report in 2021, calling the government response insufficient. “At the heart of the government response is a failure to appreciate how deep the impact of digital sex crimes is on survivors.” Most perpetrators still receive puzzlingly light sentences. In 2020, the majority of those convicted of capturing problematic images without consent received a suspended sentence, a fine, or a combination of the two. Notably, Son Jong-woo, the creator of what used to be one of the largest child porn websites in the world, was released in 2020 after serving a mere 18 months in prison, while his co-conspirators in the U.S and U.K received decades.

2021 did offer some hope: the key perpetrators of the Telegram scandal were sentenced to several decades in prison, an unprecedented feat in the history of digital sex crimes. The Supreme Court is exploring stricter sentencing guidelines for future cases.

Digital sex crime is undeniably a gender issue, where the overwhelming majority of the victims are women and the perpetrators men. This is why pinpointing “turning points” is misleading; the roots of the issue are inseparably intertwined with recurring issues of sexism and misogyny, so deeply entrenched in Korean society. In 2021, the World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap ranked South Korea 102 out of 156 countries. The gender pay gap between men and women is 32.5%. Gender-based violence is widespread. In 2021, 1 out of 5 teenagers in Seoul reported to having been directly exposed to the threats of sex crimes online. Education about sex and gender equality, which are crucial in prevention, are not catching up to the pace and intensity of these crimes.

The problem of digital sex crime has no clear beginning, middle or end. There is no clear turning point that makes everything better, especially for the victims, whose lives continue to be plagued by footages so easily reproducible and distributable, even after the rare instances when their creators face the legal consequences of their crimes.

Haeryun Kang is a freelance journalist and the creative director of MediaOri, a media incubator in Seoul. 

Image from B_A’s stream on Pixabay.

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