Updated: Oct 18, 2021
Early this year, South Korea was hit with another digital sex abuse scandal that shook the country. The “Nth Room” is a criminal case involving a sexual blackmail ring that was exposed earlier this year in March. The online rooms were run by Choo Joo-bin, who hosted these private chat rooms on an encrypted messaging app known as Telegram. Users would pay to see sexually exploitative videos of girls that were blackmailed into sending these suggestive videos. Joo-bin was taken into custody by South Korean authorities in late March.
Two female university students came across the chat groups in July 2019 while researching for an assignment that required them to investigate online sexual crimes. They spent months researching and interacting with the users in the chat rooms and eventually, they brought the actions of these groups to the attention of both the public and the police. The case received significant coverage in the media and within police stations very quickly.
Joo-bin ran multiple chat rooms that were advertised in another Telegram chat room named the “Gotham Room” by a user known as the “Watchman.” The chats were tier based: the first tier was free with one being able to move to a higher tier by paying money. The higher the tier, the more sexually explicit the videos would be. The highest tier groups could even make requests for certain acts and videos. Over 260,000 users are said to have paid for content, with some paying up to $1200 in Bitcoin to enter a chat room. Besides Joo-bin, around 220 additional users have been accused of participating in digital sex crimes associated with the Nth room. Each user was asked to submit their own private sexual abuse videos as a ticket into the room. Thus, if any users tried to expose the Nth room chats, they would be threatened with the release of their videos.
The sextortion ring targeted about 74 women, 16 of whom underage girls. They were sourced on the pretenses of fake modelling gigs and tricked into sending their personal information, including their social security numbers in hopes of getting paid. Once Joo-bin collected this information, he would hire them and ask them to send revealing pictures, which were in turn used to blackmail the victims. Joo-bin also threatened the women saying that if they didn’t participate in the chat rooms, they would be doxxed and their personal information would be released to the public. The women were added into chat rooms with three to five other girls referred to as “slaves.” They would be forced to take explicit pictures and videos at the request of the users in the chat room.
In April, South Korean courts punished a ringleader of this scandal with a short one year sentence. Accomplices were given extremely brief sentences despite the counts of possessing child pornography. The “Watchman,” a key planner in the rooms received an impermanent sentence of three years and six months. When the news was released to the public, the light sentences sparked national outrage, as this is not the first time something like this has happened. South Korea has a history of reducing sexual assault and rape crimes to charges of drunkness or mental illness.
For comparison, in 2013 in the United States, there was an invitation only website called Dreamboard similar to South Korea’s Nth room. The website’s content consisted of sexual abuse on young children. The two leaders behind the website pleaded guilty and one of them, Christopher Blackford received 22 years in federal prison. Blackford’s co-conspirator, William Davis received a 17 year long sentence in federal prison. Additionally, 48 participants of the website received sentences ranging from five to life in prison which in total became 983 years in prison and three life sentences.
However, in South Korea, 3,949 people in a three year span from 2015 to 2018 were arrested for creating and distributing child-related porn but only 479 were indicted and 80 received jail time. Those who were found to be in possession of child-porn faced even lighter punishments. In total, 92% of those charged with possession of child-porn in 2019 were given a fine of approximately $2,400 USD and the remaining 8% were put on probation.
One example was related to South Korea’s largest porn website, Soranet, which contained thousands of illegal videos. The co-founder of the website was sentenced to a mere four years and fined $1.25 million even though the majority of the videos were filmed without the consent of those featured. Moreover, these videos cost many women’s lives as those who were featured in the videos had killed themselves in shame. This incident pushed for many South Korean women to organize countless rallies and demand harsher punishments, similar to the public outcry for the Nth room.
The justice ministry of South Korea issued a statement to the public and victims in response to the outrage and vowed to raise prison sentences for digital sex crimes in March. Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae admitted that the chat rooms were a consequence of South Korea’s lenient attitude towards digital sex crimes. He explained that many of the users in the chat were reassured by the fact that they could get off with little to almost no punishment for their actions.
Within one week of Joo-bin’s arrest, more than 5 million people signed a petition asking the police to reveal his name and face as it had not been released yet. Additionally, almost 1.9 million people requested for the government to identify customers of the chat rooms run by Joo-bin. On March 24th, outside of Seoul’s Jongno Police Station, Joo-bin delivered a statement to the press, “ I sincerely apologise to all those I’ve hurt. Thank you so much for stopping the life of a devil that couldn’t be stopped.” The day after this statement, Lee Jung-ok, the minister of gender equality and family, said the government was working to further increase punishment for sexual crimes online.
Through Teen Lenses: What are your thoughts on large scale, pornography scandals reoccurring in South Korea? Do you think that the punishments these offenders receive should be very harsh?
“Digital sexual exploitation or abuse is rampant in Korea. I believe that it is being perpetuated by the fact that these offenders get light sentences and their faces remain anonymous for most cases. Personally, I think it should not be tolerated at all and the faces and information of the offenders should be released. Why should we protect these immortal and vile humans? Yes, I think the punishments these offenders receive should be extremely harsh, especially because the Nth room was not a “new” form of exploitation. It was a long going operation so they should accept a long sentence, longer than the slap on the wrist of four years.” Hailey Chung, 16, Junior, Chantilly High School, Chantilly, VA
“Child pornography in Korea, around the world, and on any scale is one the greavest crimes anyone can commit. It should be tried to the highest degree around the world, with little hesitation. Child pornography is the exploitation of young girls who are blackmailed into sending explicit videos and pictures. The worst part of this whole situation are the repulsive people on the receiving side of the videos and pictures. They not only do colossal damage to these girls, but they also get away with it. Most of these people are being sentenced for inadequate amounts of time or for no time at all. In my opinion they should pay for their actions and for the rehabilitation of the girls that were being exploited.” Nithya Ramani, 15, Sophomore, South Lakes High Schools, Reston, VA
“Nothing is one sided and the blatantly, obviously, morally correct answer here is that all of these people need to be locked up and serve the jail time they deserve, but there’s a lot of government driven involvement behind these criminal individuals and it’s really disgusting the way the world works.” Anonymous
“Large scale pornography in South Korea has rose to be intolerable and needs more attention from the media. The NTH room in which girls were being coerced and blackmailed into sending explicit content is just one example of the many pornography scandals that have been occuring in South Korea for years. However, what has the punishment been for the offenders of these cases? Close to nothing. In one case where a website had been used to spy and film women, the perpetrator received only four years of prison while another assailant was sentenced to one and a half years. In countries where illegal drug dealing can result in years of jail time, why is large scale pornography not given the same attention? With 3,949 people being arrested for child-related porn between 2015 and 2018 but only 80 being given prison sentences, the criminal justice system of South Korea possesses obvious flaws. Pornography scandals in South Korea deserve harsher punishments and further media attention. These rapists, child predators, and pedophiles are walking the streets of South Korea freely waiting for their next victims and for this reason modifications to the sentences for these crimes need modification to prevent further scandals.” Becky Paul, 15, Sophomore, Chantilly High School, Chantilly, VA