Digital sex crimes: Three lessons from South Korea

South Korea Arcade Woman

In June 2022, the US White House established a task force to combat online harassment and abuse. This is one among many similar initiatives launched in recent years in the West, including the Online Safety Bill currently under consideration in the UK and a proposed EU Directive against gender-based violence.

While these are welcome developments, signalling the gravity of the issue, what seems lacking so far is the willingness to draw lessons from the extensive experience of East Asian societies in grappling with the very same issue for the last two decades at least.

Against this backdrop, this article takes readers to South Korea, a country known for one of the world’s highest internet access rates but also for one of the widest gender gaps. In particular, the country’s long struggles with the epidemic prevalence of digital sex crimes, including non-consensual taking, making, and sharing of sexual images (locally dubbed as molka) and online grooming of minors, offer insights into how gender-based violence plays out in digital settings and where more attention is needed in tackling it.

Use better terminology to acknowledge the gravity of the crimes

Online violence against women and girls takes various, often novel, forms. Convenient shorthands, therefore, emerge in the media and gain currency in public discourse. Molka in South Korea is a case in point. An acronym literally meaning ‘hidden camera’, molka refers to the phenomenon of women being filmed unknowingly in the least expected of situations—including inside cubicles in public toilets, in motel rooms, in hospitals, on campus, or even at their own homes—and their footages being circulated and consumed as entertainment and pornography in various male-dominated (namcho) online spaces—also known as the ‘manosphere’ in internet research.

The word molka was a neologism in the 1990s referring to a popular hidden-camera prank show on TV at that time, but it has since been used euphemistically to denote criminal acts that violate the privacy and dignity of women and deter them from participating fully in everyday life. This tongue-in-cheek shorthand has trivialised the harmful consequences of the crimes, including suicides and psychological distress of victims. The word has been used so routinely that efforts to replace it with ‘illegal filming’ have been in vain. English terms such as ‘upskirting‘, ‘downblousing’, and ‘creepshots’ can perform a similar disservice.

Pay more attention to opaque digital spaces and quiet participants

Where is this ‘manosphere’, in which misogynistic acts are committed and even normalised? Much of the challenge stems from the fact that it is not a single, contained space but is instead dispersed across multiple platforms, applications, and sites that serve varied purposes. Moreover, such transgressions increasingly take place in social media accounts in private mode, members-only chatrooms on mobile messengers, and anonymous forums and comment boxes—i.e., spaces that are debated to be private and are likely to be out of reach of legal and moral scrutiny.

In 2020, for example, one of the biggest sexual exploitation rings in South Korean history was uncovered. It turned out to be a series of Telegram chatrooms operated by a handful of men in their 20s. In those chatrooms, some 70 women and underage girls were blackmailed into producing sexually dehumanising footage, and reportedly at least 60,000 men paid between £50 and £950 in vouchers and cryptocurrency to view and purchase the videos.

We can note two important points from this case. First, any safeguarding measures need to account for pockets of online space that are opaque, ephemeral, and corporate-owned. Second, public discourse on gender-based violence historically tends to focus on a small number of deviant individuals at the centre of such violence rather than the larger number of participants and their culpability in the crimes. The internet and smartphones have lowered the threshold for participation even further, widening the moral distance between perpetrators and victims to the point that it is akin to a spectator sport.

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Harmonise transnational justice systems to hold offenders accountable

In March 2018, Jong Woo Son, a then 23-year-old Korean man, was arrested for running ‘the world’s largest darknet child pornography marketplace’ for three years, according to a US federal grand jury’s indictment. His arrest was a result of international investigations involving Korea, the US, the UK, Germany, and numerous other countries. The Korean court, however, rejected a US extradition request and sentenced him to 18 months imprisonment—a ruling strongly protested by domestic and international observers. Son was released in July 2020, although he is currently being tried for a potential jail term of a further two years for concealing proceeds from the site.

This example highlights that digital sex crimes are inherently transnational and that perpetrators make strategic use of servers, platforms, and jurisdictional boundaries of different parts of the world to evade justice. Judicial harmonisation is therefore crucial to better hold them accountable.

Dr Yenn Lee is a Senior Lecturer in Research Methodology at SOAS. 

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