One story might be dominating South Korean headlines even more than COVID-19: The Nth Room sex trafficking scandal.
In late March, Korean news organizations began revealing details about a series of pay-to-view, sex trafficking chat rooms on multipurpose, encrypted messaging apps such as Telegram and Discord. The Nth room — which is actually eight different chat rooms on Telegram — circulated footage of at least 74 women and 16 minors performing forced sex acts for thousands of users who paid cryptocurrency to view it.
Many of the women and children, who were referred to as “slaves” in the chat room, were blackmailed using private information illegally obtained from government offices. On camera, the victims were raped, beaten and forced to self-mutilate.
Even worse, it’s unclear how many men paid for this footage, how many messaging apps are involved or how many copycat chat rooms have been made. Several minors between the ages of 12 and 17 are also being investigated for managing similar chat rooms and circulating or selling videos of rape and sexual assault.
“At least up to 10,000 men in Korea have had access to that chatroom, and they shared videos of sexually assaulting a bunch of minors,” said Yudori, a feminist graphic novelist and cartoonist who uses a pen name to protect her identity.
Yudori, like many other South Korean women observing these issues unfold in the media, is skeptical about whether the victims will see justice. Already, one of the individuals involved with creating the Nth room was sentenced to just 42 months — 3.5 years — in prison.
“I feel like there is still a possibility that they will get very, very lenient sentencing,” Yudori said.
The Nth Room is a shock to many in South Korea, but it’s part of a greater trend of high-tech, national sex crimes. There was the Sora.net scandal in 2016, in which thousands of illegally filmed, nonconsensual spycam porn videos were circulated to up to 1 million site visitors. (One of the site’s co-founders was sentenced to four years in prison last year.) Similarly, in 2018, thousands of women rallied against spycam porn filmed inside hotels, spas and public bathrooms around the country.
“The platforms change and the message and the details change, and the patterns are similar and you see the same patterns in the nth room, and that’s treating the sexual objectification and the dehumanization of women as a game."
Haeryun Kang, a freelance journalist from South Korea and the creative director of a media startup called VideocusIN, recently created a short film called “Color of Rage: The Nth Room” that addresses the impact of these sex crimes on women.
“The platforms change and the message and the details change, and the patterns are similar and you see the same patterns in the nth room, and that’s treating the sexual objectification and the dehumanization of women as a game,” Kang said.
But even as a journalist who reports on these issues frequently, the cruel nature of the Nth Room was hard for Kang to imagine.
“The Nth Room shocked me because of the way these women were treated and the things they were coerced into doing,” she said. “Yes, those actions were shocking to me, but what was shocking to me, even more, was the callousness of the language, and how people just talked about rape as if it was just a joke.”
For now, it’s unclear how the government will react to the Nth Room in the long run. Police are investigating several chat room handlers, and the story continues to develop in South Korea on a daily basis.
Lee Soo-jung, a professor of criminal psychology at Kyonggi University, said it’s time for the government to create laws that crack down harder on internet sex crimes.
“This is an astonishing case for people who didn’t know about cyberspace, the dark web and how the world works. How can there be a place where such inhumane, uncivilized crime can happen in secret?”
“This is an astonishing case for people who didn’t know about cyberspace, the dark web and how the world works. How can there be a place where such inhumane, uncivilized crime can happen in secret?” she said. “We’re running into a problem where offline law and order does not yet apply to the online world. So, how do we make a law that can cover all kinds of dubious, illegal activity in cyberspace? That’s our homework for now.”
Mitch S. Shin contributed to this report.