*Content warning: this piece discusses sex trafficking and sexual violence*
COVID-19 wasn’t the only nightmare South Korea was dealing with last March.
Going viral in late March 2020 was the “Nth Room,” a sexual crime operation where women — and underage girls — were blackmailed into sexual slavery. These young girls, often looking for ways to help alleviate their financial burden, were recruited by trafficking operators to complete seemingly harmless and miscellaneous jobs or assignments, and attend conditional meetings with their alleged “sponsors” who would send them money in exchange for these deeds. These interactions initially occurred on social media services like Twitter before conversations were moved to Telegram— an encrypted messaging app. Here, the recruiters asked for the victims’ personal information, such as their names, bank account numbers and home addresses, claiming it was needed to deposit money to their accounts. The operators took this information and proceeded to stalk, blackmail and physically abuse these women — and order them to do such to themselves on video, via blackmail. All of these exploitative videos were then distributed by chatroom operators on Telegram to viewers who had made cryptocurrency transactions.
Because the administrative user created eight groups on Telegram using ordinal numbers (i.e., 1st room, 2nd room, etc.), the sexual crime case became known to the public as the “Nth Room” Case. Around 260,000 users were found in association with the “Nth Room” and the more these viewers paid, the more degrading the content they received. The clips distributed went well beyond the nudity of these women; the women were forced to commit violent and extreme acts such as carving the word “slave” onto their bodies with a knife or harming their genitals.
Politicians justified the participation of the 260,000 users. Congressman Jeong Jeom-sik (정점식) remarked that viewers “enjoy these videos alone for self-satisfaction, so are we going to punish them for that?” The South Korean Attorney General Kim Oh-Soo (김오수) blamed the girls, claiming that “It's normal for teens to fool around on the computer," dismissing their criminality. They weren’t the only politicians to express such tone-deaf thoughts.
The general public was horrified. Over 2.7 million people in Korea have signed a Blue House Presidential Petition—a national system of political concern expressed via petition to the government and Blue House officials— requesting that the government reveal the identities of the traffickers and the viewers, which challenged the country’s norm of protecting criminal anonymity. Afterwards, 24-year-old Cho Joo-bin was identified as one of the chatroom administrators in late March, while evidence in mid-April revealed 18-year-old Kang Hoon as an underage accomplice. There’s also another petition where over 2 million people have requested that all 260,000 viewers’ identities be revealed.
But this isn’t enough: Korea must finally reflect upon its normalization of female objectification, which was made evident in the handling of the “Nth Room” Case.
As a Korean girl who moved to America in 2010, I was ashamed of my motherland; these appalling comments from Korea’s political leaders only reminded me of the difference in progress between the modern American and Korean feminist movements. Unlike the more progressive Western feminist agenda, I’ve found that Korea’s deep-rooted history of Confucian values are often a justification for the subjugation of women.
It’s offensive that Korean law doesn’t acknowledge child pornography as sexual abuse or exploitation, but rather as illegally-produced films. Korean law is too lenient on all sexual crimes, which explains the proliferation of digital sex crimes, such as spy cam pornography and cyberbullying. Compared to sentencing in the U.S. for sex offenders that’s roughly 10 to 30 years in prison, sentencing for sex offenders in Korea is a slap in the face, as those who possess child pornography can only get jailed up to a year or pay a fine of 20 million won ($18,111.68). In 2018, Son Jung-woo received a mere 18-month sentence for operating one of the world’s largest child pornography sites, and South Korea even denied the extradition request by the U.S. in August 2020. Without harsher sentencing, how will perpetrators come to understand the severity of their crimes? How will victims get justice? Until then, victims will never feel encouraged to share their stories.
Furthermore, Korea should change its outlook on sex, which is still a taboo topic. Korea is a sexually repressive country; porn is banned, and the topic of sex is rarely discussed by families, schools or even the media. In order to change its attitude towards sexuality, Korea needs to improve its sexual education programs in schools and normalize discussions about sex for students. In cultures where sex is taboo, people may repress their normal sexual urges so much so that it festers into something worse.
Korea’s current national sex-ed guidelines mention sexist ideals and fail to cover imperative topics such as a breakdown of sexual harrassment in its different forms and resources for sexual assault victims. When people are allowed to express healthy sexuality, the rate of sexual crimes will accordingly decline. That’s why comprehensive sex education is essential in teaching students about consent and healthy sex.
While these reforms are crucial in furthering progress for the women’s movement, they can’t single-handedly change a society’s sentiment on feminism. Around 2015, feminism started making an appearance in Korea, but it only worsened the gender divide between men and women given that the movement emphasized misandry, rather than pro-female ideologies. This meant misandrist feminism was not only despised by men, but it couldn’t even elicit strong support from many women who struggled against misogyny. In fact, some women with clear feminist ideals came out as equalists and didn’t dare to use the “F-Word,” given the stigma affiliated with the title.
Currently the feminism movement in Korea lacks unity, but I still have hope. There’s a wide array of issues — for all genders — that the feminist movement can help alleviate. This progress starts once the negative connotation of feminism — which the Korean media falsely labels extremism — is debunked. With more education on the women’s movement, I believe the connotation of feminism in Korea can be reconstructed and developed into a progressive movement where men and women collectively fight against unjust crimes such as the “Nth Room” and create progress towards gender equality.