South Korea hunts down leader of new ‘Nth Room’ as sex crimes soar despite digital reforms
- Suspect ‘L’ is believed to have coerced minors to perform sexual acts on camera and profited from the distribution and sale of the material on Telegram
- Despite a law imposed last year to combat digital sex crimes, they continue to proliferate ‘faster and more easily than ever’, according to activists
The scandal involves a criminal mastermind given the alias “L”, who police are tracking down – along with possible accomplices and viewers of illegal content – for coercing minors to perform sexually degrading acts on camera and profiting from their distribution and sale to users through the private messaging app Telegram.
South Korean police typically hide the face and information of criminals, but nearly 2.7 million people signed a petition demanding to see the 24-year-old’s face.
In the original Nth Room case, at least 103 people, including 26 underage girls, were blackmailed into performing gruesome sex acts while their photos were shared and sold to more than 60,000 users.
Moon Hyung-wook, creator of the Nth Room chat room which had some 260,000 users, was sentenced to 34 years in jail, while Cho, who was part of the case but ran a different chat room called “Baksa Room” with at least 10,000 members, was handed a total prison term of 45 years.
The crimes involving L could be even more deplorable, as police announced the seven victims who had been discovered so far were even younger than the underage girls in Cho’s case. And the tactics L used to lure them in were even more cruel, despite reforms in internet protocols and an increased awareness of child abuse prevention.
While South Korea has been called one of the safest countries in the world due to its relatively low crime rates and the absence of drugs or guns in public, underground online crime networks that are accessible to all, regardless of age or location, seem to be thriving.
Alongside prostitution rings, a growing drug network, gambling sites and various other scams, authorities and activists have been alerted to the accessibility of illegal acts found online.
“There has been a noticeable increase of digital sex crimes as digital technology rapidly develops,” Amnesty International stated two months ago in its submission to the Universal Periodic Review of South Korea. “[People can] spread and purchase the illegally filmed content and sexually exploitative materials faster and more easily than ever.”
Unlike Moon or Cho, the perpetrator of the current case uses as many as 30 temporary chat rooms.
While some rooms are accessible through a simple online search or shared link, others require missions like taking part in a certain amount of inappropriate chatting, or sharing pornography.
Won Eun-ji, a member of the investigative group “Flame”, who uncovered the first series of Nth Rooms two years ago when she was a student journalist, estimates there were more than 5,000 active users in chat rooms managed by L last year.
“In addition to switching his [online] ID three to four times a year, the perpetrator this time even impersonated an activist to approach his victims,” she told This Week in Asia. “The perpetrator would then steal personal information to use as blackmail.”
The so-called Anti-Nth Room legislation, which came into effect last December, strengthens punishment for various sex crimes, including at least a year’s prison sentence for users who possess, distribute or just view sexual content involving minors. The legislation also forces internet service providers to comply with government standards that help prevent their systems from being used as carriers of illegal content.
“However, the government did not put in place a sustainable emergency response system for digital sexual violence. Nor did it adopt sufficient measures such as cooperation with overseas platform operators to prevent the further distribution of illegal and non-consensual materials online,” Amnesty International’s statement read.
The Anti-Nth Room law only applies to open online spaces. Consequently, user reports and investigations are the only ways to detect illegal content sharing in private chat rooms, something that Won did as an undercover journalist to discover the original Nth Room crime ring.
The editor at the media agency Alookso continues to monitor for illegal chat rooms on Telegram while assisting victims in reporting the crimes to police.
“There have been improvements in security and law enforcement after the Nth Room case two years ago,” Won said.
“Education on responding to underage victims, providing legal help to victims, increasing punishments for child sex abuse criminals and monitoring internet companies have been effective to some extent. But as one can see in the recent case, it’s the victim who needs to be the one actively reporting crimes to the police.”
It was reported that a victim went to police in January, but due to a lack of evidence, they failed to investigate the accusations. It was not until the end of last month that police created a special task force for that case, which is linked to L.
According to Won, many victims who came forward were in their teens, and were originally reluctant to report the crimes to authorities for fear of their schools and parents finding out. “Underaged victims have to also go to authorities with their parents, which adds an extra obstacle for many.”
Digital crimes are far-reaching
Cybercrimes are not just limited to sexually explicit images.
A decade ago, South Korea was thought to be “clean” from drugs, with only gang members or rich elites who bought black-market narcotics ending up in court on possession charges.
But recent reports have found that a high percentage of drug users today are in their 20s or younger, with office workers and students becoming regular users.
One study shows out of 100,000 people, 28 are illegal drug users – above the drug-free country level of fewer than 20 per 100,000. Last year, there were 16,000 drug criminals in the country, with 60 per cent of users under 40. A drug criminal is someone who uses, sells or imports psychotropic drugs.
Hidden camera phishing scams are also on the rise. Through chat applications, hackers install malware on a victim’s phone to access their contacts and other personal information that can be used for blackmailing and financial extortion.
According to Kim Hyun-geol, the head of the Korea Cyber Security Association, “due to the criminal nature of body camera phishing scams, only about 30 per cent of these crimes get reported”. And of the 10,073 cases reported last year, only 2,330 cases were successful in catching the perpetrator, a success rate of about 23 per cent.
The National Police Agency has been studying countermeasures which include reviewing the legality of new investigation techniques such as hacking into a suspect’s electronic device and securing criminal traces.