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  • Zichen Hu

Nth Room - A case of silent sex crimes in South Korea

Nth room was the major case that rocked South Korea in 2020, where the sale of sexual exploitation videos occurred in Telegram chat rooms. It is estimated that there were up to a maximum of 300, 000 members enjoying the illegal porn filmed by spy cam, blackmailing or even false imprisonment. The number of confirmed victims is a minimum of 74, including 16 children. As the investigations go further, there are reportedly up to ten thousand victims. After being officially exposed by the government-funded Yonhan News Agency on 23rd March 2020, the scandal caused public outrage in South Korea. In just a few days, more than 2.5 million people had petitioned on the Korean political platform "Qingwadae National Petition", demanding the participants' personal information of the group chat to be published, setting a new record in South Korea of the largest petition ever.

When reports first started, the ringleader of the chat rooms where the sale of sexual exploitation took place, the so-called “Doctor”, figured out the personal information of the reporter that exposed them and circulated it. Sharing tricks for dealing with police investigations with triumphant tones is another quotidian routine in the chat room, which is a shame on the police that has been neglecting their duty. The case should have brought public attention two years ago. Two years ago, Jaesoo Kim (fictitious name) reported the nth room case by contacting police on 112, but this was ignored for “not being a credible report”. In January 2019, The Seoulshinmun Daily conducted undercover journalism and reported that there was a secret Telegram chat room distributing child pornography, which was also not valued as “substantial as a crime case”.

South Korea has been deeply troubled by spy cameras and illegal filming. In 2017, more than 6,400 illegal filming cases were reported to the police, compared with about 2,400 in 2012. Last year, tens of thousands of women took to the streets of Seoul and other cities to protest against the practice and demand action, under the slogan: "My life is not your porn."

A U.S. civil rights agency conducted a survey of 1,606 South Koreans, with the results showing that 23% of people found themselves to be victims of sneak shots or videos, which are channeled to the Internet. 93% of the victims suffered from mental illness, and more than 50% thought of suicide. From 2012 to 2017, there were more than 30,000 cases related to sneak shots in South Korea. Among them, 6,500 cases of sneak shots were received by the police in 2017, but less than 2% were arrested and detained. Among them were even “decent” University professors and government officials.

The most terrifying fact is that the spy cams are usually installed by those known to the victim: acquaintances or even close male relatives. In a chat room called "Acquaintance Insult Room", the members send photos of their friends, sisters, wives and other female acquaintances, and the managers synthesize and distribute the nude photos for the community to enjoy. After turning off the mobile phones, the perpetrators still accompany the victims as usual, laughing and joking with them, living "normally".

In South Korea, derived from deep-rooted patriarchal ideologies and practices, gender inequality is consistently ranked as one of the highest in the world. For example, the World Economic Forum ranks South Korea 118th out of 144 countries in its 2017 Global Gender Gap Report. Under such circumstances to the disadvantage of women, an act of simply watching illegal porn and keeping silent, although it does not directly constitute a crime, may further reinforce a structural force in exploiting and infringing women’s rights.

“It is possible to bring down these videos but it is a real problem because it emerges again and again,” says Ms Park, who founded the group Digital Sex Crime Out in 2015 as part of a campaign to bring down one of the most notorious websites, called Soranet. Soranet has more than a million users and hosted thousands of videos taken and shared without the knowledge or consent of the women featured. Many of the website's spy cam videos were taken secretly in toilets and store changing rooms, or posted by ex-partners out for revenge. However, such host sites defend themselves arguing that they were not “aware” of whether these videos were filmed illegally. Therefore, we can see that the notorious Nth Room Case is not an isolated incident.

While victims in the spotlight are frightened by social stigma, those who committed the crimes are invisible and hardly punished. Here, “criminals” are not referred to as those film-makers and distributors, but also their target audiences. Immediately after the official media exposed Nth Room, eager comments emerged, asking for the link to Nth Room, to allow them to “ enjoy for one last time”. Such a context of spontaneous consent to the dominant patriarchal ideologies that objectifies women as merely sources of sexual pleasure might imply the dim prospect of this notorious case to be unsolved. The public discourses of "collective" silence and indifference are accomplices who normalized, legitimated and empowered such crimes to exist and grow profusely, which are bound to cause South Korea deeper troubles as the tension and polarisation escalate beyond control.

Image - Unsplash.

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