Commentary: South Korea needs to face their not-so-hidden sexual abuse problems

Warning: This commentary contains graphic and abusive content and derogatory and misogynistic language.

From late 2018 until early 2020, up to 260,000 people entered a fee-based chat room called Nth room on a messaging application, Telegram. They would pay up to $1,200 USD in Bitcoins to access abusive and sexual content and the more you paid, the more violent and graphic the videos were.

The 74 confirmed victims in the chat room, ranging from a nine-year-old child to young adults, were forced into prostitution after they received an email claiming that their Twitter account was going to shut down. They were required by the organizers of Nth Room or Baksa Room to log onto a false Twitter page. In another method, the perpetrators posed as employers who would pay well for easy jobs, targeting women who were in need of money.

The perpetrators eventually got enough information, like their names, address, social insurance number, private conversations and photos, to threaten the girls into providing sexual video content for a week. With the videos in their hands, the perpetrators kept the victims in a vicious cycle where if they tried to seek help, the perpetrators could threaten to publish the videos or send others to rape them.

Some of the abuse the victims were forced into included drinking toilet water, complying to rape, inserting scissors or caterpillars into their genitals or cutting the word slave or doctor on their bodies. 

Two female university students, under the name Team Flame, investigated these chat rooms last July for an investigative journalism competition held by the Korea News Agency Commission, directing public attention to the issue. The first petition was filed in November and after a group called ReSET Team followed through with more investigation, a second petition was filed. It gathered five million signatures, requesting to investigate the case and reveal the faces and names of all the organizers and viewers who entered the chat room. It was only after 200,000 signatures were gathered and the news began to cover the case did the government and police act.

Before, victims who attempted to contact the police to seek help and safety were brushed off or were constantly sent to other jurisdictions.

The suspected organizers of Nth Room are men in their 30s. They’ve been imprisoned for similar crimes before, but for no more than four years.

The suspected organizers of Nth Room were men in their 30s who were imprisoned for similar crimes before. (Photo from Yonhap News Agency)

Even though the laws to protect sexual abuse victims exist, they aren’t being enforced. Even when sex offenders are turned in, they receive a maximum of five years in prison or up to a $41,000 USD fine. Most of them are known to be released under a suspended sentence or a fine.

It’s not the first time that crimes like the Nth-room rose to a national level. South Korea has been struggling with sexual abuse for a while.

Just over two years ago, the Burning Sun Scandal happened, which involved drugging of victims in various clubs including the Burning Sun co-owned by a K-pop artist Lee Seung-hyun (Seungri) and selling them to artists, government officials, and other high-positioned individuals to be raped and later silenced. 

Videos of victims were found in K-pop stars Jung Joon Young and Seungri’s group chat. Jung recieved six years of jail time. Seunri didn’t recieve jail time, but he left his agency YG Entertainment and didn’t return to the entertainment industry.

On Twitter, some called the victims of Nth Room, “bitchy whores” or posted statements such as:

“If the question is put a little differently. For people who are afraid there are Nth room perpetrators around you, would you understand if I’d be worried about whether there are prostitutes around me?” 

In South Korea there already exists hostility between women and men which is commonly refered to as gender wars. Research done by the Korean Women’s Development Institute’s Ma Kyung Hee showed 50.5 per cent of men in their 20s were opposed to feminism. Multiple cases exist of women with short hair getting beat up by men because they are assumed to be feminists.

Pornography is illegal in South Korea because the country deems itself as conservative and traditional.

But what happens when demand exists but there is no supply?

Black markets, illegal and uncontrolled places where victims are abused until they break and then get discarded.

Victims are frequently not properly protected if at all, and women are unlikely to report rape because it’s seen as a disgraceful and embarrassing act. In South Korea, there is no proper education implemented in schools on sex and it is deemed as a “hush-hush,” almost taboo topic in families. Many of these issues are beginning to surface as more violent crimes such as these are brought to light.

I’m not saying what happens there should be legalized, but I encourage the government and the legal system to make changes. Instead of banning everything and sweeping these cases under the “face-saving” carpet, maybe put more effort into fixing these issues and investigating further.

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