NTH ROOM’S strategies to ensnare women were simple: texts such as “Your private photos have been leaked on this website, you should check if it is really you,”—or even more innocent ones such as job offers—were sent to several young women. Once the perplexed victims checked the website, criminals extracted their personal information including addresses, telephone numbers, and family and work information, and the cycle of blackmail would begin. This method for horrific digital sexual exploitation along with its scale and abuse of minors brought the Nth room into the limelight—and with it, the dismissive way South Korean society treats digital sex crimes.
Inside the Nth room
The “Nth room” case revolves around multiple chat rooms on Telegram—an online social messenger application with a feature that allows users to talk in anonymous group chats—being used to exploit numerous young girls and women into making pornographic and degrading contents of themselves. Nth room is one of the two main series of chat rooms that had a number of chat rooms under its name. This digital sex crime case first began in late 2018 by a user nicknamed “Gatgat*,” who uploaded personal information and graphic content of its victims and sold sexually exploitative videos in eight different chat rooms. Within each room were 3 to 4 victims that Gatgat called “slaves,” who were threatened and blackmailed into filming themselves performing desired acts ordered by Gatgat. If a victim refused, her personal data were published to the Nth room, where users of the chat rooms were incited to punish the resisting female by finding and raping her, record the rape, and sell it online as pornographic material.
The Nth room disappeared in September, 2019 when Gatgat quit Telegram and handed over its operations to another user with the nickname “Kelly.” According to Korea JoongAng Daily, the Nth room was later replaced by other copycat rooms: the second main series of chat rooms after Nth room—the “Bak-sa room.” Operated by a user with the nickname Bak-sa, the Bak-sa rooms were a series of rooms of a more violent and larger scale crime that created and distributed sexually exploitative content of minors and women. Victims were forced to perform and record inhumane activities including harming themselves, getting raped, damaging their genitals, and performing other sadistic sexual acts. The contents were distributed to over 260,000 users throughout the Telegram chat room who paid high prices ranging from ₩250,000 to ₩1.5 million paid through cryptocurrency** in order to enter the chat rooms or access the contents. On March 16, 2020, the police arrested the main criminal behind the case, whose face and name were revealed to the public on March 25: Cho Joo-bin, a 24-year-old man who lured dozens of young women, including at least 16 minors, with offers of fake high-paying jobs and then exploiting them sexually***. The victims were promised to receive high payment if they followed Cho’s orders to send photos or videos of their bare bodies which were later used to blackmail the victims into performing even more violent, sexually explicit and degrading acts for the viewers’ pleasure. The victims never received any money. “The prominence of such a case of digital sexual exploitation involving minors is unprecedented,” said Lee Soo-jung (Prof., Dept. of Psychology, Kyonggi Univ.), criminal psychologist and long-time activist against child pornography in an interview with The Yonsei Annals. “Previous prominent cases included ones such as children being lured by suspicious individuals in random chatting applications. Nth room is unique in that it is clear the victims went through prolonged systematic abuse.”
Currently, other perpetrators behind Nth room continue to be apprehended and revealed. On Apr. 17, 2020, another identity was made public: Kang Hoon, an 18-year-old minor who operated the Nth room alongside Cho under the nickname "Butta," who is said to have also managed financial matters such as profits from the chat rooms and recruited people to the Nth room****.
According to Korea JoongAng Daily, the Nth room was first discovered by two female university students—who call themselves “Team Flame”—when they began investigating these chat rooms in July, 2019 as part of an investigative journalism competition held by the Korea News Agency Commission (KONAC). Interacting in the chat rooms first-hand, Team Flame gathered information and submitted their entry which not only resulted in winning the competition, but sparked an investigation by the police in September, 2019. However, while newspapers have been writing about the Nth room since November, 2019, it was not until March, 2020 when the case gathered public outcry. “Korea has been taking digital sex crimes so lightly,” said Team Flame in an interview with Korea JoongAng Daily. According to Fourth-Wave Feminism, many South Korean men were aware of the presence of the Nth room, yet instead of reporting the crime, they asked for the link to the chat rooms. The only man to report the crime was Kim Jae-su (name changed) who contacted authorities in February, 2019—however, the police reportedly showed no interest in investigating the case. Seeing the lack of concern from government agencies, Kim himself became the leader of one of the Nth rooms, judging that punishment for these acts were unlikely.
The Blue House and the Fourth Estate
Severe public outrage followed the revelations of the Nth room case. Five petitions posted on the Blue House online petition portal calling for further investigation and discipline regarding the Nth room case all exceed 200,000 signatures, the minimum number of signatures required to receive an official government response. Among those was the petition calling to reveal the faces and identities of the prime suspects of the Nth room case which garnered over 2.7 million signatures—the most participation seen since the system was created. Numerous people including celebrities also took to their social media accounts such as Instagram and Twitter to voice their anger and urge others to sign the petitions, writing hashtags such as “Punish Nth Room.”
In response to the nation’s shock, on March 23, 2020, President Moon Jae-in called for a thorough investigation into the Nth room case. According to Yonhap News, President Moon stressed the need to probe all users involved in the chat rooms, including the main operators of the Nth room, those who uploaded and distributed content, and all members of the chat rooms. Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae further vowed to reveal the identities of the users in Nth room and Bak-sa room as well as put heavy prison terms on the users. Meanwhile, South Korean lawmakers put forward a bill proposing an amendment to the criminal act and on acts on information protection and sexual violence. Under the proposal, those involved in an organized digital sex crime is to be indicted for being a part of a syndicate, which would then permit legal punishment to be given to those who enter such online chat rooms regardless of having produced any content*****. As of March 26, 2020, 126 people in relation to the case and the nicknames of approximately 15,000 paid users of the chat rooms were uncovered, and the police are continuing to track down the identities of these users as well as others involved in the case******.
However—with the exception of content that involves minors—with no law punishing people for owning or viewing illegal content existing in the South Korean legislative system yet, concerns arise on whether punishments to perpetrators involved in the Nth room can be given effectively. According to Maeil Business Newspaper, if the victim is under the age of 19, the Act on the Protection of Children and Youth Against Sex Offenses can be taken into consideration—under Article 11 of the act, those who have sold the sex videos for profit will be subject to up to 10 years of imprisonment, and the possessing of these videos will also result in a 1-year imprisonment or a fine of up to ₩20 million. However, it is difficult to punish those who have watched the sexually explicit videos on the Telegram chat rooms if the victim is an adult. If a video was played without it being saved on one’s mobile phone, the act is not subject to punishment; and only those who have created or distributed the content will face charges. As for the punishment to the perpetrators who operated the chat rooms, while the government announced that there will be thorough investigation and laws imposed regarding the Nth room case and other digital sex crimes, there are no official laws or statements on the methods to punish the operators themselves yet.
Even as the police are investigating Nth Room, similar “rooms” continue to circulate sexually exploitative material. According to Yonhap News, these chat rooms share videos for a few hours or days before deleting themselves to prevent tracking—a continuation of Nth room’s techniques. One such chat called “Season 3,” activated on April 9 on Telegram and accessed by 550 people, had the admin incentivize participants to upload child pornography in exchange for admin status. Police have said they are tracking admins and accessors of such chats along with those related to Nth Room regardless of Telegram’s cooperation.
A crooked courthouse
Prior to the Nth room case, the government put several efforts to suppress other digital sex crimes. In 2016, the government shut down Soranet, a Korean website then known for the heaviest circulation of revenge and spycam pornography. Also, in 2018, the Korean government and other countries such as the United States took down Welcome to Video, a dark website******* that operated as the world’s largest child pornography website for three years since 2015. Of the 337 people from 18 countries arrested for this case, 223 people including Son Jong-woo, the administrator behind the website, were South Korean. However, to the fury of many, Son was sentenced with a light imprisonment of 18 months and was forbidden from being employed in occupations involving minors for 5 years. An online petition calling for a more severe punishment of Son and users of the website was posted on the Blue House online petition portal on Oct. 21, 2019; however, many people said that the fact that the news on Welcome to Video gaining attention a year after it became known shows how much digital sexual crimes are overlooked in Korea********. The head of the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family responded that although the executive government cannot encroach upon the judicial branch’s decisions, they are now in the process of establishing mandatory minimum sentences for the crime of creating and circulating child pornography and strengthening penalties for their possession.
The Nth room case is not the first time that flaws are seen within the South Korean legislative system. The widespread criminal creation and distribution of spycam pornography in Korea—known as mol-ka—further underscores the flaws of the nation’s laws in dealing with digital sexual crime cases. In a study investigated by the Korea Women Lawyers Association (KWLA), sex crimes involving cameras made up 3.6% of the total number. This rate surged to 24.9% in 2015. According to Article 14 of the Sexual Violence Punishment Act, sexual crime includes such acts as filming or distributing that induce sexual desire or humiliation—but with the law lacking clear criteria on what counts as “sexual desire or humiliation,” the KWLA criticized the government’s failure to realize the seriousness of spycam and other digital sex crimes. According to The New York Times, Korea revised laws in 2017 to strengthen punishment for digital sex crime including spycam pornography; however, as seen from the ambiguous criteria in punishing perpetrators in the recent Nth room case, flaws with the nation’s legislative system in handling digital sex crimes continue to exist.
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Public outcry and the intensified government actions and attention towards the Nth room once again demonstrates the need to take digital sex crime seriously. However, even with the surfacing of this new and horrifying type of crime, South Korean criminal laws still permit perpetrators to avoid serious penalties, highlighting the gaps that still exist within the legislative system in dealing with digital sex crime. At the moment, the government and authorities are putting strict efforts to punish the perpetrators of Nth room and properly respond to digital sex crimes, but the willingness of Korean society to confront the uncomfortable reality of sexual dehumanization is a step that is also needed to prevent such atrocious crimes from happening again. It is high time that we stopped mishandling these cases and gave the victims justice.
*Gatgat (갓갓): This nickname can mean either “coolcool” or “godgod” depending on how it is read
**Cryptocurrency: A digital currency in which money is transferred without the control of government authorities, making it more difficult to track financial transactions
***The New York Times
****International Business Times
*******Dark websites: Websites not inventoried by search engines and require specific software or authorization to access
********The Korea Herald
*Disclaimer: Though the article infographic states that Cho Joo-bin is 25 years old, this is in Korean age; Cho is 24 years old.