Last month, for the first time in South Korea ’s history, police in Seoul revealed the face of a sex offender to the public – a move that is seen by female activists as a change in tone for authorities in a country where police previously only disclosed the personal information of those accused of murder. It came after nearly 2.7 million people signed an online petition to the presidential office demanding the release of the personal information of the ringleader – now known as 24-year-old Cho Ju-bin – of a group accused of child sex abuse and prostitution. Cho stands accused of forcing victims to perform degrading sexual acts and send him the videos, which he then uploaded to one of the infamous chat rooms on the private-messaging app Telegram that are collectively known as “Nth Rooms”. China investigating ‘Nth Rooms’ child porn sites after outcry in South Korea South Korean President Moon Jae-in also denounced Cho’s alleged crimes as “cruel” and said the public fury in the matter was “justifiable”. Last Wednesday, Cho stepped in front of flashing cameras at Seoul Jongno Police Station with a neck brace and a bandage on his head – reportedly from self-injury – to “thank” people for “stopping the life of a devil that couldn’t be stopped”. Some of the videos uploaded by “Baksa”, or “Doctor” in Korean – the online nickname of Cho – included scenes of victims drinking toilet water and carving the word “slave” on their bodies. Cho has been held in detention since March 17. His crimes became publicly known on March 23 after he was charged, and a public outroar over the matter soon followed. Since September, the police have arrested 124 suspects and 18 operators accused of running “Nth Rooms” on Telegram. More than 260,000 users are known to have joined in the chat room activities. Experts like Cho Jin-kyeong, the director of Stand Up Against Sex-Trafficking of Minors – “Teens Up” for short – believe that the latest incident is just one of the many sex crime cases in the country that have stirred interest in the illegal acts of prostitution – underage or otherwise – that occur in plain sight with no real official challenges to their everyday operations. Seoul’s red light districts: first losers of the Winter Olympics However, Cho Jin-kyeong said she sees some hope of change, given the number of people calling for action against sex criminals. “The public’s fear towards such sexual crimes has finally hit a boiling point after so much accumulation from past cases,” she said. The South Korean entertainment industry was shaken last year when singer Jung Joon-young shared secretly taped videos of him having sex with women on a group chat with friends on the popular Kakao Talk messenger app. One of the members in the group was Seungri, a former member of K-pop powerhouse Big Bang, who was also charged with operating a prostitution ring in relation to the Burning Sun nightclub scandal last year. The country went through its own #MeToo movement in 2018 after a series of rape and sexual harassment accusations were charged against high-profile men including authors, movie directors and actors. “If many people thought that victims of sexual crimes were unlucky or sometimes deserving of what happened to them, people are now viewing these crimes as potential threats to anyone including themselves,” Cho Jin-kyeong said. She added that the proliferation of social-networking apps has led to an even greater amount of sex crimes occurring online, often via secret channels. And she isn’t surprised that 16 out of the 74 victims in what is now being called the “Nth Room Case” are underage girls. A 2016 study on child prostitution by Ewha Womans University’s Institute for Gender and Law found that 57.3 per cent of young women in prostitution first entered the practice when they were 14 to 16 years old. South Korean women fight back against hidden-camera sex crimes Teens Up said it had even received phone calls from worried mothers of girls attending junior school who have sent inappropriate photos to unknown adults via mobile chatting apps. “Young children are much more vulnerable to sexual crimes that happen online because they are at an age when they are curious about everything around them,” said Cho Jin-kyeong. “It’s much more likely that they will talk to and meet strangers online.” She says many sexual predators use grooming methods such as showing interest in a much younger girl and promising rewards to gain trust and win her favour. “Once the predators have proof of text messages sent by the girls, they threaten to show it to the girls’ parents,” Cho Jin-kyeong explained. “Teens who are tricked by predators also avoid going to the authorities for help, as parents are the first to hear from the police.” She believes that social networking apps and the IT industry need to take responsible steps in building protective online walls against such criminals. Korean websites like Sweet World, which uses a secret URL that changes periodically, lists a number of “adult entertainment establishments” disguised as massage parlours and the like, some of which are run from residential apartments. Businesses on the website use photos of women to promote their establishments, including rates and contact information via links to social networking apps such as Kakao Talk, Line and Telegram. “Even though prostitution has been outlawed since 1961, it is a practice that is commonplace and a type of entertainment for men in our society,” claims Joohee Kim, a professor at Sogang University’s Critical Global Studies Institute. It’s become socially acceptable for men to visit a red-light district Joohee Kim, Sogang University professor Havocscope, a website that provides information on the global black market, ranked South Korea’s prostitution market as the world’s sixth largest in 2015, estimating its size at US$12 billion. “Even though people are aware that prostitution is illegal, it’s become socially acceptable for men to visit a red-light district before entering the military or to have drinks with women at adult entertainment establishments with co-workers from the office,” Kim said. She said that public awareness needed to be raised on the issue in order for the government’s stance to shift to a more serious tone. “The idea that only abnormal people own these illegal businesses or that abnormal men are the only ones who visit prostitution establishments needs to change,” Kim said. A 2016 report on prostitution by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family estimated that more than 50 per cent of Korean men had paid money for prostitution services at least once. The most effective way to change attitudes, according to Lee Ha-young, the director of the National Solidarity Against Sexual Exploitation of Women, “is to give more severe punishments to sexual offenders so that the public knows the severity of the crime.” “Even though the police keep an eye on these establishments, they say that they don’t have the manpower or the time to look at all the illegal businesses around their neighbourhood,” she added. Currently, those found in possession of abusive images of children can receive a year in prison or a fine of 20 million Korean won (US$16,300). The government is in the process of responding to an additional two million people on the online petition system connected to the president’s office. Angered and worried petitioners are calling for the names of all 260,000-plus users in the “Nth Room” chats on Telegram to be revealed in order for fair punishment to follow. The Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency said it had started to seize and search accounts on cryptocurrency markets in connection with the case.