“There could be one of you”: S. Korea’s Spycam Porn Epidemic

Roll camera: a gleaming white basin inside a cubicle, an amber-tinted tile floor. Two seconds in, a young woman with a bob walks in, wearing brown leather platform boots. She turns around, raises her black leather skirt, pulls down her underwear, then squats. It takes about two minutes for her to finish her business and flush the toilet. She checks her makeup and walks out, oblivious to the fact that a hidden camera has just captured the entire proceeding.

This video circulates online, spread by anonymous users. It is one of the countless hidden camera videos taken in South Korea and posted on illicit porn sites.

“There are so many hidden camera footages out there. There’s probably one of me. Maybe there’s one of you too,” said Ha Yena, the founder of Digital Sexual Crime Out (DSO), an organization that aims to eradicate sexual crimes online.

Jovial and unassuming, Ha comes across as an average 21-year-old. But she is also poised, especially when discussing the seriousness of digital sex crimes. Her real name is Park Soo-hyun; Ha Yena is a pseudonym she first adopted to protect her identity, and uses now for convenience’s sake (Korea Exposé will use her more familiar activist name in this article).

Many South Korean women have taken up defensive habits to protect themselves from sexual predators. They cover their bottoms with handbags when climbing the stairs in public places. Before pulling their pants down, they scan the corners of public restrooms for cameras, checking holes or nails in unusual spots.

But most are still unaware of how vulnerable women are to spy cameras.

An ostensibly porn-free nation

On the surface, South Korea seems sexually conservative. The government censors what it describes as ‘obscene materials,’ including hardcore pornography. If an internet user attempts to access a porn site, what often pops up is a warning page featuring the logos of the National Police Agency and the Korea Communications Standards Commission (KCSC), the country’s content watchdog.

KCSC is an independent entity that oversees the deliberation of ‘obscene materials’ shown online and on air. “We assess contents based on our own guidelines and judicial precedents,” said Oh Ha-ryong, assistant director of KCSC’s PR team.

The KCSC guidelines state that images of “sexual body parts” like genitals, pubic hair and the anus, or of explicit sexual acts should not be circulated.

In South Korea it’s illegal to distribute hardcore porn with explicit display of sex acts. Whereas producers in neighboring Japan’s massive porn industry can operate so long as they pixelate genitals, South Korea lacks a legitimate hardcore porn industry. Only softcore porn that doesn’t show genitals and simulates sex acts on film is legal.

Which may be why so much happens underground. There’s an alarming amount of spycam and revenge porn online — the exact scale of the underground industry is unavailable.

The problem is, many of these illicit porn footages are often shot discreetly, without the consent of the participants, and distributed without their knowledge. The problem has been aggravated in recent years by the availability of spycams that come in all shapes and sizes, including in the forms of eyeglasses, lighters, pens and car keys. The sale of spycams in South Korea is unregulated.

R.I.P. Soranet

One of the most notorious websites for spycam porn was Soranet. The site, which the National Police Agency estimates had over one million members, was rife with revenge porn, spycam porn and even real-time invitations to rape golbaengi-nyeo (a “sea snail girl”), a widely-used term for a woman who is unconscious because she is intoxicated or drugged.

In 2015, Ha Yena and other DSO members participated in a movement to close down Soranet. A year later, the website was shut down. But this victory was only the beginning. An unknown number of similar websites exist all over the internet, easily accessible even without a VPN that is often used to bypass government censorship.

Despite laws and official censorship, illegal porn sites do proliferate. Often, they aren’t even so “underground.” They’re easily accessible, unbarred by the official “warning page.” You just need to know the right keyword to type into a search engine.

Watchdog KCSC can only ask websites to remove obscene materials or disable domestic access, said Oh from KCSC, but the agency cannot force them to do so. “But almost everyone complies. I’d say close to 100 percent,” he added.

While KCSC assesses and decides whether to notify website owners for inappropriate contents, porn site owners have enough time to hop onto another server to avoid censorship or prosecution. A case in point was Soranet. The owners bought foreign domains and IP addresses, while changing servers constantly to avoid permanent crackdowns. They used Twitter to advertise their latest url.

“They changed from Soranet.com to Soranet1.com, and so on,” Oh said. “Site owners dodged us while continuously uploading more content. Even if we cracked down on them, we couldn’t eliminate them 100 percent.”

A “Natural Genre”

Activist Ha Yena once came across a chatroom on a pornsite where a user was conspiring to commit rape. “When I tried to stop the user, I was told to leave [the chat room],” she said, because she was bothering an ‘artist’ trying to create an ‘artwork.’

Ha thinks that one problem is seeing spycam and revenge porn as just another genre of porn catering to a different taste, and not as criminal violation of women’s privacy. Often, she says, South Korean men prefer this “genre” as more “natural” than foreign porn.

“It’s innately male-centric to call them ‘porn.’ From the men’s perspective, these videos may be porn. But from my position, from the women’s positions, they aren’t,” she said.

Perpetrators of digital sex crimes are often the boyfriends or sex partners of the victims, who distribute the footages with captions like “girlfriend,” “wife” or “married woman.” According to Korean Women Lawyers Association, more than 43 percent of perpetrators with known connections to victims were the victims’ boyfriends.

Even before spy cameras and smartphones with high-quality camera became easily available around 2010 (some spy cameras can now be bought online for less than $10), sexual crimes involving cameras were common.

In 2004, the South Korean government advised all cellular phone manufacturers to disable the muting of the shutter sound for camera phones (which is why the shutter sound of Apple smartphones sold in South Korea cannot be silenced). This measure was aimed at preventing upskirting, which was an especially big problem in crowded subways.

Sex columnist Hyeon-jung (pseudonym) blames a lack of sex education for the profusion of digital sex crimes. “Most men have not received proper sex education. They don’t have a proper understanding of sex,” she argued. “There’s no sense of right or wrong. If the content is racy, men consume it.”

What is ‘obscene’ anyway?

The vague legal definition of ‘obscenity’ means official crackdowns are often aimed at the wrong targets, or not sufficiently enough at the right ones.

In 2011, Park Kyung-sin, a then-member of the main deliberation committee at KCSC, posted images of male genitalia, among others, on his personal blog. He wrote the following caption: “Are you sexually stimulated or aroused by these images?” He was mimicking a phrase in KCSC’s guideline, which he deemed to be too vague to be used for enforcement, which led to stifling freedom of speech.

Park was the only one — out of the nine committee members — who judged the images to be not obscene. Facing backlash, Park took the images down from his blog, conceding they were inappropriate for minors; but he stood his ground on excessive censorship. He was later fined 3 million won ($2600) for distributing obscenity, but was acquitted of the charge on appeal.

It was a telling incident that reflects how arbitrary the definition of obscenity could be. And too often, “common sense” and judicial precedents act as the rule of thumb. “Generally, if there are genitals they are considered as obscene materials,” said Oh Hwa-seop from the National Police Agency.

But much of the hidden cam porn, and even rape porn, circumvents this vague definition of obscenity because genitals are not captured on camera.

Despite government efforts to censor websites and curb ‘obscenity,’ sex crimes involving cameras, not just spycams, have been on the increase. The number of such crimes have more than quadrupled from just over 1,100 in 2010 to more than 5,000 cases in 2016, according to the National Police Agency.

Ha Yena argues that the vagueness of the law, coupled with a lack of awareness of online sex crimes, make the police less than helpful to victims.

When DSO showed spycam porn to the police, on behalf of the victims that came to the organization seeking help, a police officer simply said that the footages may have been “set up” to resemble rape and hidden camera recordings, said Ha.

“We do see many articles saying the police reacts tepidly and inappropriately. But there has not been any precise case of complaint nor requests to punish police inaction. So I’d say it’s a mere accusation, unconfirmed by facts,” said Won In-hak, an officer from the Sexual Violence Department in the National Police Agency.

Won said that victims of digital sex crime should come forward and report the case if the police had been unhelpful.

Big Money

Hidden cam porn is potentially a hugely profitable business. Porn sites abound in ads for prostitution, date rape drugs and gambling. Ha says these ads bring in “tens of thousands of dollars each month.” This amount hasn’t been independently confirmed.

Porn site owners avoid detection by cashing out their revenues in cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin. Soranet used this tactic until it closed last year, and the anonymous owners have been on the run ever since.

Newspaper Hankook Ilbo reported that the owner of Ggulbam, one of the biggest porn sites to take Soranet’s place, with over 500,000 daily visits, said he aspired to “live a lavish life by earning around 10 billion won ($9 million)” through the website. The police found that the owner, identified only by the surname Chung, earned at least 1.5 billion won ($1.3 million) in 2016 alone.

While perpetrators potentially make millions of dollars by pandering to voyeuristic tendencies, victims, especially those whose faces and identities circulate with their videos, can even end up in prostitution after losing their jobs and social status, according to activist Ha.

“Police tell them to change their faces and names,” she said. “If she doesn’t want to ‘reset’ [her name/face] then she’d need to spend about 3 million won ($2,700) each month to keep the contents off the internet.” Payment goes to agencies that track and remove videos from the internet.

In September, shortly after President Moon Jae-in spoke out on the need to tackle the issue of hidden cam videos, the presidential office proposed regulating hidden camera sales, imposing stronger penalties and providing a stronger support system for victims.

Following the president’s speech, the Seoul district police inspected over 1,000 public spaces, including toilets and changing rooms. A month of inspection turned up not a single hidden camera, prompting criticism that such concerns were figments of paranoid women’s imaginations.

Ha said it was really an issue of where to look. “Subway hidden cam videos are not popular online. Hidden cams of sisters are more sensational, which earns more comments and thumbs up, indicators of popularity.”

She added, “In reality, there are many more videos from homes — of sisters, moms, girlfriends, etc.”

 

Cover image: Hidden cameras often come in unexpected sizes and shapes. (Source: AntanO via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY SA-2.0)

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Jieun Choi is staff writer at Korea Exposé. She has worked in the art industry and startups in Hong Kong and Australia.