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[Editorial] Disclose identities

Members of sex abuse chat rooms must be punished; penalties must be strengthened

A sex crime scandal involving a group chat room on an internet messenger service has jolted the South Korean society.

More than 2 million people have signed an online petition demanding the government unveil the identities of not only its operator but also its members.

President Moon Jae-in said Monday that police should not limit the investigation to the “baksa room,” but investigate all members of “nth rooms.”

“Baksa room” and “nth room” are Telegram chat rooms where members share videos of child sexual exploitation. “Nth room” is the first room that spawned similar sex chat rooms, including “baksa room.” Baksa is the nickname of the room operator.

Police disclosed only the surname of Baksa as Cho, but hours after Moon’s remarks, local news media revealed his identity -- 25-year-old Cho Ju-bin -- along with a photo of his face.

The baksa room is estimated to have more than 10,000 members, some of whom paid up to 1.5 million won ($1,190) to watch videos.

Cho approached women through a messaging app and offered to give them money if they sent him photos of their naked bodies through an anonymous chat room of the app. Some accepted the offer because the room does not reveal personal information. But his accomplice accessed a government computer network to acquire personal information, which was used to threaten the women. They forced them to take videos of brutal sex acts and send them to Cho. Seventy-four women, including 16 middle school girls, were victimized.

Cho ran three chat rooms for paid members, and the level of exposure and brutality is said to have risen depending on the membership fee.

Sex crimes devastate victims, sometimes cornering them to feeling they must take their own lives. Particularly digital sex exploitation videos spread at lightning speed, spiraling out of control.

Considering the social impact of this scandal and the necessity to prevent secondary damage and recurrence of similar crimes, the disclosure of the identity of the chat room operator looks inevitable.

The petition drew more than 2.3 million signatures in just five days. The number is the largest since the online petition system was launched under the Moon administration. Moon answered the petition very quickly. It usually takes more than two months for Cheong Wa Dae to answer an online petition. The petition was filed on March 18, and five days later Moon answered. This indicates he takes the case seriously.

But his answer leaves one thing to be desired.

Precisely what the petition demanded was that a cap and mask be taken off and the suspect be shown before the media.

News media disclosed his face, but it seems unlikely to see his perp walk.

Former Justice Minister Cho Kuk banned the disclosure of personal information on suspects in December, and accordingly the prosecution abolished public summons of suspects and witnesses. When his wife was summoned by the prosecution as a suspect of a corruption scandal, she was the first to benefit from the ban on perp-walking.

At that time, many criticized the ban as hypocritical. Now the petition has gathered the largest number of signatures ever. Moon said he sympathizes with the public fury. But there was no mention of a perp-walk. The ban on perp-walks needs to be reconsidered.

A digital sex crime tends to develop into collective sexual violence because participants can hide in the anonymity of the internet. This is why their identities must be exposed to eliminate sex crimes like in the nth room.

According to a 2020 white paper from the Justice Ministry on sex crimes, the number of crimes using hidden cams surged from 412 in 2013 to 2,388 in 2018. Response to digital sex crimes needs to be strengthened. But the reality is disappointing. In Korea, possession of child pornography is punishable with up to one year in prison or a fine of 20 million won. This is a slap on the wrist compared to the US (maximum 20 years behind bars). To root out child sex exploitation, sentencing guidelines ought to be set from the standpoint of victims.

Where there is a demand, there is supply. Those who paid fees to watch sex exploitation videos must be punished as accomplices. The first step is to disclose their identities.