S. Korean civic groups, feminists furious at refusal to extradite child pornography site operator to US

Posted on : 2020-07-08 17:00 KST Modified on : 2020-07-08 17:00 KST
Critics lambast decision as wasted opportunity to punish digital sex crime
Members of the Women’s Party denounce the Seoul High Court’s decision to not extradite the operator of the world’s largest child pornography site on July 7. (Baek So-ah, staff photographer)
Members of the Women’s Party denounce the Seoul High Court’s decision to not extradite the operator of the world’s largest child pornography site on July 7. (Baek So-ah, staff photographer)

South Korean civic groups and women are seething after the rejection of a US extradition request for the 24-year-old operator of Welcome to Video, the world’s largest child pornography website. The anger isn’t just about the man -- identified by the surname Son -- having been responsible for atrocious crimes of sexual exploitation. After Son received what amounted to a slap on the wrist from the South Korean judicial system, extradition to the US had been seen as the only means of ensuring that he received a stern punishment.

With the decision coming amid an emerging societal consensus on the need to harshly publish crimes of “digital sex abuse” such as the “Nth Room” case, some observers are saying that trust in the judicial system as a whole has been deeply undermined.

A number of one-woman demonstrations were held in front of the Seoul High Court building in Seoul’s Seocho District on July 7 to denounce the decision against extraditing Son. One 38-year-old schoolteacher arrived from Gumi a day earlier on July 6 to hold a demonstration. The teacher in question had previously gone public about having been groomed for sexual abuse by an eminent psychiatrist.

“It’s discouraging to see these kinds of slap on the wrist punishments for people who victimized children. I find myself wondering what’s the use in teaching children,” she said.

“Being sexually abused is difficult enough, but the harshest thing of all for the victims is the second form of abuse that happens when the courts don’t properly punish [the perpetrators],” she added.

Women have been most infuriated about the court’s decision to disallow the extradition -- while expressing hopes for “the establishment of a new paradigm for crimes of sexual exploitation” -- after previously handing Son an 18-month sentence for crimes that would have left him behind bars for the rest of his life in the US. That ruling means the opportunity to achieve justice through the South Korean judicial system has already passed. The full extent of Son’s crimes was only learned by the South Korean public after a coordinated investigation involving 30 or so countries.

Another 24-year-old one-person demonstrator said, “The court declared that [Son] ‘could be punished in South Korea, but his sentence has already been carried out. We can’t hold another trial, and I don’t understand that this ruling doesn’t view that as him being let off the hook.”

In a statement, the Joint Committee for Countermeasures against Sexual Exploitation on Telegram said, “Mr. Son is a criminal who was only arrested after a process lasting over two years with the coordination of four countries and the cooperation of 32.” The committee denounced the court’s explanation as a “forced interpretation to avoid the ignominy of the US judiciary carrying out the punishment that the South Korean judiciary could not.”

Some observers voiced concern that the decision will deflate calls for the appropriate punishment of crimes of sexual exploitation and abuse. Many were appalled at the sight of Son’s “homecoming” after only 18 months in prison for circulating at least 3,000 items of child and adolescent pornography to 1.28 million members around the world. Oh Seon-hee, an attorney with the women’s committee for the group MINBYUN-Lawyers for a Democratic Society, said, “Mr. Son’s extradition was an opportunity to send the message to society that the judiciary intends to resolve this twisted criminal framework in which people profit from sexual exploitation. But the judiciary once again let that opportunity slip.”

People turning to social media to enact “private justice”

Amid mounting distrust in the courts, many are taking action online to achieve “private justice” -- a kind of vigilante activity. This has included the emergence of social media accounts posting the photographs and personal information of Nth Room offenders, as well as a recent website titled “Digital Prison” that has been making personal information public. The site, which has published the personal information of offenders in cases involving sexual abuse, is administered by an anonymous operator. In a message encouraging participation, the site’s manager explains that its content is “heavily encrypted in a bulletproof server set up in a bunker in an Eastern European country.”

Oh called this “the result of women feeling that they have no recourse but to take action themselves.”

“This could lead to new damages, such as the publishing of information about the wrong people. The state’s failure at a fundamental resolution of the problem has left us all in a vicious cycle,” she said.

Efforts have also been underway by women to improve gender equality in the judiciary. Posts shared on various online communities call on citizens to “personally scrutinize the gender attitudes and sensitivity of all 30 candidates for the Supreme Court.” A 28-year-old one-person demonstrator on July 7 said, “I felt that I could no longer sit around and do nothing. Rather than closing our eyes to sex crimes any longer, I want society to stay angry.”

By Park Yoon-kyung and Jeon Gwang-joon, staff reporters

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

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