Asia Pacific / Crime & Legal

'Every second is a heart-wrenching moment': South Korean team hunts down spy-cam and 'revenge porn' videos

by Kang Jin-Kyu

AFP-JIJI

In a drab government office in Seoul, a team of regulators spend their days watching online porn — the front-line troops of South Korea’s attempts to crack down on spy-cam videos that mostly expose women.

The 16-member unit for monitoring digital sex crimes was set up this autumn by the Korea Communications Standards Commission (KCSC), with a mission to hunt down and remove sexual videos posted without consent. As of last month it was operating 24 hours a day.

Spy-cam videos, known as molka, are largely shot by men secretly filming women in schools, toilets and elsewhere.

The task force also targets “revenge porn,” private sex videos shared without permission by disgruntled ex-boyfriends, ex-husbands or malicious acquaintances.

In the highest-profile example, K-pop singer Jung Joon-young was arrested in March on charges of filming and distributing illicit sex videos without the consent of his female partners. His court verdict is due next week, with prosecutors demanding seven years’ imprisonment.

The twin phenomena have become increasingly widespread in the hyperwired South, driving tens of thousands of women to demonstrate against them in the streets of Seoul last year, chanting, “My life is not your porn” and demanding authorities take action.

Sitting at their desks, the KCSC staff — most of them assigned from other roles at the commission, and four of them women — have the cautious manner of bureaucrats.

An Hyeon-cheol came through this year’s competition for the highly coveted jobs at KCSC — there were 146 applicants for each available position — but his duties are a far cry from what he expected. “It was difficult to maintain my composure,” the 27-year-old said of his first days as a civil servant. “I saw many provocative pictures of a kind that I had never seen before in my life.”

Lee Yong-bae, the head of the monitoring team, said: “When I went outside, I could not look at women around me because pictures I saw in the office overlapped in my mind’s eye. I had to keep my head down.”

To find the material, they search domestic and international platforms — including Twitter and YouTube — for Korean-language terms that reference sexual acts, although sometimes keywords are disguised with asterisks or other meaningless characters.

They can instruct South Korean sites to take down suspect videos, but the vast majority are on overseas servers beyond their jurisdiction, and they can only ask foreign operators to remove them voluntarily.

The task force took action 82 times a day in October on average — eight times more than the regulator did four years ago, before the dedicated unit was set up.

Ordinary commercial porn — which is illegal in the South, with access blocked — is not part of their remit.

Sometimes panicking victims contact the task force themselves on a KCSC hotline, 1377, asking for help.

“We recently had a victim who gave us 100 different site addresses where a sex video secretly shot by her ex-boyfriend was uploaded,” Lee said, acknowledging that completely removing a video is “nearly impossible,” with material being disseminated online at the press of a button.

One spy-cam video first posted in May spread to more than 2,700 sites in six months, a KCSC document shows.

The first day after the initial upload is the “golden time” to intervene, said Min Kyeong-joong, secretary-general of the KCSC, after which re-postings are likely to “spiral out of control.”

“Our mission is to contain the spread in the first 24 hours,” he said. “For the victims, every second is a heart-wrenching moment.”

In the conservative South, many women who appear in such videos feel deep shame despite being a victim and face the threat of ostracism and social isolation if the videos become known to those around them.

Nearly 5,500 people were arrested for such offenses last year, up 22 percent from 2016, police data show — and 97 percent of them were men.

Park Yu-na, 31, said she now routinely avoids using public toilets “as much as possible.”

“I and other women share this fear that we can fall victim to spy-cam crimes anytime, anywhere,” said Park, who lives in Seongnam, a city southeast of Seoul.

The KCSC task force was set up after President Moon Jae-in acknowledged the spy-cam issue last year, calling for tougher punishments and saying, “We as a society have failed to fully recognize the trauma and humiliation suffered by those victimized.”

Filming or distributing intimate videos without consent can carry a punishment of up to five years in prison for each video, but analysts say many offenders end up with only a suspended sentence or a fine.

“There is this tendency where watching illegal sex videos is tolerated as just another form of men’s entertainment, compounded with weak punishment,” said Lee Na-young, professor of sociology at Chung-Ang University in Seoul.

The South’s patriarchal culture “suppresses pragmatic sex education,” said Bae Bok-ju, a member of the National Human Rights Commission, so that many men “grow up thinking there is nothing wrong with watching illegal porn as long as they don’t put it into action.”

Some argue against controls on spy-cam videos as an infringement of freedom of expression, said KCSC chief Min.

“When I listen to such claims, I want to ask them this: ‘Would you say the same thing if it was your wives or daughters?'”