Operator of Welcome to Video likely to get 5 years or less

Posted on : 2020-07-08 16:58 KST Modified on : 2020-07-08 16:58 KST
S. Korea’s punishment for money laundering more severe than that for digital sex crimes
Civic groups protest South Korea’s refusal to extradite the operator of the world’s largest child pornography site to the US in front of the Seoul High Court on July 7. (Baek So-ah, staff photographer)
Civic groups protest South Korea’s refusal to extradite the operator of the world’s largest child pornography site to the US in front of the Seoul High Court on July 7. (Baek So-ah, staff photographer)

A court rejected a US request for the criminal extradition of the 24-year-old operator of the website Welcome to Video, while ordering South Korean investigative agencies to conduct an investigation into additional charges. But observers are saying the likelihood of the operator -- identified by the surname Son -- receiving serious punishment is realistically slim. Not only is the legal maximum sentence for the additional charges much lighter than in the US, but even that punishment is unlikely to be handed down once the matter of equity with his previous conviction is taken into account.

Son was arrested and indicted on charges of producing and distributing obscene material for sale and providing 3,055 items of sexually exploitative material between 2015 and 2018. He was sentenced to 18 months in prison, which he finished serving in April. The only charge remaining against him is a US federal grand jury indictment for money laundering -- the accusation being that he used fake accounts, including one in his father’s name, to conceal around 400 million won (US$334,812) in cryptocurrency earnings from the production and distribution of sexually exploitative material involving children and adolescents.

But according to South Korea’s Act on Regulation and Punishment of Criminal Proceeds Concealment, the maximum sentence for concealing or disguising criminal proceeds is “not more than five years” or “a fine not exceeding 30 million won [US$25,105].” In terms of prison time, it amounts to just a quarter of the 20-year maximum sentence in the US.

Yean Park, a US attorney who is active in supporting victims of digital sex crimes, said, “US courts view [the production and distribution of] sexually exploitive materials involving children and adolescents as a quite serious crime, and if Mr. Son had been extradited to the US, he would have received the legal maximum sentence.”

“While there was the possibility that he might receive additional punishment in the US in the case of charges where he has already been convicted in South Korea [based on an investigation of new victims], the South Korean court decision has now ruled that possibility out,” Park added.

Even if Son receives an additional indictment on charges of concealing criminal proceeds, he is unlikely to receive the maximum sentence of five years if issues of equity are raised. For the crime of producing sexually exploitive materials involving children and adolescents, the legal maximum sentence is life in prison -- yet Son was sentenced to 18 months on that charge. If he does receive a five-year sentence for concealing criminal proceeds, this would result in a situation where he is punished less harshly for the “chief crime,” which carries a far heavier sentence, than for the concealment of the resulting proceeds.

The 20th criminal division of Seoul High Court under Hon. Kang Young-su, which conducted the criminal extradition review, expressed hope that Son would be appropriately punished, quoting Son himself as saying he would “willingly accept a heavy sentence for concealment of criminal proceeds in South Korea.” But even the confiscation of Son’s criminal proceeds and the collection of their equivalent value has moved at a slow pace, with a rate of 12.2% (43.6 million won) as of September 2019. Shin Jin-hee, a state-appointed attorney specializing in victims of sexual abuse, said that Son’s case “was botched the moment the 18-month sentence was upheld.”

“This is a case where the irresponsibility of the South Korean judiciary in failing to properly punish [Son] from the outset has fueled the fire,” Shin said.

Son does appear to be in a position to help the investigation of Welcome to Video members if he possesses information that allows them to be identified. But if additional charges emerge, that could prove detrimental to him -- which leaves a situation where investigators have to bank on his good faith. Son could end up with a reduced sentence if his investigation cooperation is used as grounds for a more lenient sentence on his criminal proceeds concealment charges.

More and more observers are saying this case needs to serve as a turning point in investigative agencies and courts establishing standards for digital sex crime investigations and sentencing that are more in tune with public sentiment. Attorney Park Won-gyeong said, “The Son case needs to be used as an opportunity to produce a societal consensus on the punishment of digital sex crimes, including changes to the current digital sex crime investigation and sentencing practices of investigative institutions and courts.”

By Joh Yun-yeong, staff reporter

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

button that move to original korean article (클릭시 원문으로 이동하는 버튼)

Related stories

Most viewed articles