The South Korean government is facing fresh calls to take urgent action over digital sex crimes that are ruining women’s lives and tragically leading to deaths by suicide.
A new investigation released on Wednesday by Human Rights Watch casts a confronting spotlight on the trauma of victims of online sexual violence, where images captured without consent are shared non-consensually, or sometimes manipulated or faked.
South Korean women and girls have been struggling for years against a growing problem of voyeurism and a rise in digital sex crimes, including the use of high-tech equipment known as “spycams” to take illicit intimate pictures, leaving many afraid of using public facilities like bathrooms.
The misuse of spycams is so prolific it has been dubbed an “epidemic” and it prompted tens of thousands of women to march in Seoul in 2018 in a wider protest against entrenched misogyny and a lack of gender equality.
The 92-page report, “‘My Life is Not Your Porn’: Digital Sex Crimes in South Korea”, is based on 38 interviews with survivors and experts and concludes that women and girls targeted in digital sex crimes still face significant difficulty in pursuing criminal cases and civil remedies.
In one disturbing case highlighted by the report, a woman called Lee Ye-rin describes how she was given a clock by her employer, only to discover after it had been in her bedroom for a month that it contained a hidden camera that had been streaming constant footage.
The perpetrator was eventually sentenced to 10 months in jail, but she faces a lasting impact from the experience, and a year after the incident continued to take medication prescribed for depression and anxiety.
“What happened took place in my own room — so sometimes, in regular life, in my own room, I feel terrified without reason,” she said.
The crime has spiralled over the past decade. In 2008, fewer than 4 per cent of sex crime prosecutions in South Korea involved illegal filming. By 2017 the number of these cases had increased eleven-fold, from 585 cases to 6,615, and constituted 20 per cent of sex crime prosecutions.
In another heartbreaking incident in the report, a young hospital lab technician, referred to as "A", died by suicide in 2019 after a colleague filmed her and other women in a changing room.
Her father Lee Young-tae told HRW that A, who was due to get married a few months later, was tormented by the fear that the colleague could have shared the footage with others.
The perpetrator was sentenced to 10 months in prison even though the prosecutor had requested two years.
Two years was “far too short”, let alone 10 months, said Mr Lee. “Most of all, the law should be stronger,” he said. “Harsher than it is now.”
Human Rights Watch has urged the government to do more to prevent and respond to digital sex crimes, including tougher sentences, more funding for support services, and better training for police and prosecutors.
“Officials in the criminal legal system – most of whom are men – often seem to simply not understand, or not accept, that these are very serious crimes,” said Heather Barr, HRW’s interim co-director of women’s rights and author of the report.
“Survivors are forced to deal with these crimes for the rest of their lives – with little assistance from the legal system.”
Women turned out in 2018 to support the MeToo movement during a rally to mark International Women's Day in Seoul, South Korea
Credit: Ahn Young-joon/AP
The investigation reveals that in 2019, prosecutors dropped 43.5 per cent of sexual digital crimes cases, compared with 27.7 per cent of homicide cases and 19 per cent of robbery cases.
Judges often impose low sentences – in 2020, 79 per cent of those convicted of capturing intimate images without consent received a suspended sentence, a fine, or a combination of the two.
“Digital sex crimes have become so common, and so feared, in South Korea that they are affecting the quality of life of all women and girls,” said Ms Barr, adding that “an alarming number” of survivors said they had considered suicide.
“The root cause of digital sex crimes in South Korea is widely accepted harmful views about, and conduct toward, women and girls that the government urgently needs to address,” she said.
“The government has tinkered with the law but has not sent a clear and forceful message that women and men are equal, and misogyny is unacceptable.”