South Korea Telegram Case & Gaps in the Legal System

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South Korea has, once again, been hit by a massive sex-related criminal scandal. In 2018, it was the spy-cam (molka) issue which exploded. In 2019, the Seungri Burning Sun scandal. Now, only a few months into 2020, yet another horrendous case has been brought to the public’s attention.

The Telegram case has hit South Korea hard, breaking petition records and sending shockwaves throughout the country. Despite all the hype about the MeToo movement and the anger directed at past sex crimes, crimes against women continue in an ever-more disturbing manner. These crimes seem to be taken very seriously by the public, so why hasn’t more changed? Perhaps the legal system is ill-equipped to adequately handle such cases. 

The list gets longer: The Telegram case

At least 103 women, including 26 underaged girls, were found to be victims of a large online sexual exploitation plot reportedly involving over 260,000 paying customers. The so-called ‘Nth room case’ refers to an online pornography ring that was operating through chat rooms on Telegram, an encrypted messaging app. Due to the countless chat rooms through which these crimes were facilitated, the case came to be referred to as the Nth room case.

The perpetrators targeted young women and girls through ads offering part-time (mainly modeling) jobs. This proved to be a successful strategy as many young girls are looking for extra ways to make some money. The women would then submit their personal information, including their social security numbers and addresses along with photographs in order to get paid. 

Fake links were also sent to trick the girls into entering passwords and various other login details, thus enabling the perpetrators to acquire other personal data such as phone numbers and addresses. Once hired, the girls would allegedly be asked to provide more revealing pictures. With these materials in hand, the perpetrators were easily able to threaten their victims into taking part in more disturbing acts. If they refused, the men threatened to send these materials to the women’s’ family and friends. 

Stuck in this cycle, the girls quickly became virtual slaves in this Telegram exploitation operation. According to police, the girls were “virtually enslaved” for several months and, in some cases, the victims were blackmailed into committing violent acts on themselves such as carving the word ‘slave’ on their bodies. Some of the men running these rooms also allegedly sexually assaulted some of the victims. Police believe the crimes began in 2018 and have been going on until the arrest of the main perpetrator behind the criminal organization. 

A criminal enterprise 

The Telegram rooms were all operating under the orders of ‘Baksa’ (the Korean word for “Doctor”). To make money off of the girls, Baksa sold the sexually explicit photos and video content through these chat rooms using cryptocurrency. Given the encryption feature of Telegram, the identities of those purchasing these materials could be protected and paying with cryptocurrency added yet another layer of anonymity. 

(Chat messages indicating language used such as ‘The slaves are waiting’, ‘Send more stimulating videos’ /Photo via KBS news)

The rooms were divided into three categories, each differing in price and type of content available. The tier-3 room cost 200,000 Won ($165); tier-2 700,000 Won ($577), and tier-1, the most ‘VIP’ room, cost a whopping 1.5 million Won ($1237). The girls were thus being purposefully sexually exploited for financial gain by Baksa and his accomplices. 

Revealing Baksa’s identity 

As the media began spreading word about the case, people became enraged. A Blue House petition calling for Baksa’s identity to be revealed broke all records and received a shocking 5 million signatures. It was clear that the police had to take this case seriously. Baksa was finally arrested on March 16 and his identity revealed to the public on March 24. 

The man behind the entire criminal enterprise was revealed to be a 25-year old by the name of Cho Joo Bin, a graduate of Inha Technical College. “Thank you for putting a brake on the life of a devil that could not be stopped,” he said in front of the cameras. He was, however, silent when asked if he regretted what he did. He also did not apologize to the victims. 

(25-year old Cho Joo Bin aka Baksa appears before the public/Photo via JoongAng Ilbo)

But why wasn’t he apprehended sooner? Were there no signs he exhibited to those around him that could lead to suspicion? This was, in fact, not the case. Cho volunteered at an orphanage in Incheon on weekends from October 2017 until recently. The time frame of his volunteer activity also overlaps with the alleged sexual exploitation and assaults of women and girls and the distribution of sexually oriented videos on Telegram. Police suspected he began operating the Telegram chat rooms in late 2018 and continued until his arrest.

Cho was handed over to the prosecution on March 25 for further investigation. Cho and two of his accomplices are now facing criminal indictments, while the third co-conspirator, identified as an Army soldier, was placed under arrest on April 6 after a military court issued a pretrial detention warrant for him. Although a petition to reveal the identities of all Telegram users who were members (260,000 in total) of Cho’s Telegram rooms has already garnered over 2 million signatures, it is highly unlikely they all will be caught. Still, police have recently managed to obtain the nicknames of 15,000 paid members. Moreover, the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency raided about 20 cryptocurrency exchanges and purchasing agencies on April 6 to ascertain financial transactions between Cho and his paid members.

An ill-equipped legal system 

Citizens have been urging the authorities to severely punish Cho and his group, with many calling for new laws to be drafted that apply to cyberspace. Authorities have taken some action so far. The police launched a special unit focusing on digital sex crimes on March 25 aimed at strengthening cooperation with overseas law enforcement authorities and technology companies to better track down perpetrators. That same day, a parliamentary committee adopted a resolution urging the need to strengthen punishment against online sex crimes such as the Nth room case. The prosecution has also set up a 21-member task force to investigate Cho’s case, including experts in youth crimes. The president also weighed in on the case, urging police to expand their probe into the members of the chat rooms to change the perception of perpetrators who “hide behind anonymity.”

Cho is currently facing charges including coercion, sexual abuse, and violation of the Child Protection Act. It is not clear, though, what kind of punishment he and his accomplices will face. South Korea lacks relevant laws to punish crimes related to mobile messaging services such as Telegram. Since there is no clause that exactly covers such an incident, punishment will be decided by the court. There is also no law prohibiting the viewing of illegally filmed images. The only way to punish such individuals would be if those who were filmed are underage; then they could be charged under the Act on the Protection of Children and Juveniles against Sexual Abuse (아청법). 

But the prosecution must do more than just punish Cho and his group for abusing minors. The other girls deserve justice too. The key to this justice could lie in the structure of Cho’s criminal group. According to Article 114 of South Korea’s Penal Code, punishment concerning organized crime will be decided according to the intent/goal with which the organization was formed in the first place. In Korea,  punishments range from 4+ years imprisonment to life in prison and even the death penalty. Thus, if a group was organized for the purpose of committing murder, all members of that group could be charged with the death penalty—the heaviest punishment for a murder crime—regardless of whether they committed any murder or not.  

The punishment Cho and his accomplices will receive thus depends on two things: whether his Telegram operation can be considered an ‘organization’ and for what purpose this organization was established. The fact that the operation was conducted with Cho on top as the leader giving the orders and other men—aptly named ‘employees’—taking orders, distributing materials and collecting money etc. can serve as evidence of an organizational structure. 

Cho and his accomplices could also be charged under the Punishment of Violences Act (폭력행위처벌법), Article 4 of which states that the convict can be sentenced to the maximum death penalty if an organization is organized for the purpose of joint assault, joint injury, joint intimidation or joint blackmail. Given that Cho and his group are currently under investigation for joint intimidation, it’s not impossible for this law to be used to determine their sentencing. 

A ‘rape culture’ mindset? 

Some argue, though, that changing laws is not enough. What must change is South Korean mentality and society. Deep-rooted behaviors towards women must change if we want such cases to stop, or at least begin to decrease. The term ‘rape culture’ refers to an environment in which rape is rampant and media and pop culture norms tolerate sexual violence against women. Not all Koreans would agree to this definition to describe their society, but many women undoubtedly will. South Korean society is plagued by a deep gender inequality according to the World Economic Forum which ranks the nation 108 out of 153, as of this year. 

There is no need to look too far to find out why. From the 2009 Jang Ja Yeon case to the explosion in Molka incidents, South Korea is definitely not the most comfortable country in the world to be a woman. Despite the explosion of feminist movements like MeToo, women still walk around worried they might secretly be filmed in subway stations, in their dorms, or while using public bathrooms. Others are drugged at clubs or Karaoke venues and forced to service rich men. Some clubs even host gang-rape parties for their VVIP members, using teams of what they refer to as “incinerators” to clean up the aftermath. Pimps are criminalized and fined in South Korea, but this has little effect, as they simply pay the fines, considering this a tax on doing business, and keep operating their enterprises.

As long as men maintain a mindset that justifies or even condones any kind of abuse against women, these crimes will continue. What’s more, with technology ever-evolving, such crimes could potentially get even worse and become increasingly difficult to trace. This is a long-term fight, which is exactly why it is imperative authorities and the country’s justice system use their power for good. They must set an example for the rest of society and be crystal clear on what is acceptable and what is not, and the consequences one can suffer as a result of criminal behavior. As such, as long as crimes against women continue to be down-played by light sentencing and inadequate investigating, harassment and abuse against women and girls will remain a deep-rooted issue in Korean society for generations to come. 


Gabriela Bernal is a Korea analyst and current translator at The Daily NK. She holds degrees in international peace and security from King’s College London and human rights from Sciences Po Paris. She is also the founder of The Peninsula Report, a blog on Korean affairs. She has previously written for NOVAsia.

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