A year of pain from an Nth Room victim as witnessed by the Hankyoreh

Posted on : 2020-11-23 17:34 KST Modified on : 2020-11-23 17:34 KST
Hankyoreh embarks to create archive of digital sex crimes
An abstract depiction of the battle with organized digital sex crimes
An abstract depiction of the battle with organized digital sex crimes

Editor‘s note: “Cyber Hell: Exposing an Internet Horror,” a documentary exploring the Nth Room case, premiered on the global streaming service Netflix on May 18,2022.

“Cyber Hell” examines the cybercrimes committed in the Nth Room through interviews with 24 of the people who investigated it, including journalists, producers and police. Among those providing their vivid recollections for the camera are the members of “Team Flame,” which first investigated the case, as well as Hankyoreh reporters Kim Wan and Oh Yeon-seo, who first reported the story, and members of the police’s cyber investigation team.

As “Cyber Hell” hits screens across the world, we’re bringing back some of the Hankyoreh‘s articles from its special feature on sexual exploitation spreading on Telegram to shine a light on the issue of cyber sex crimes in Korea.

Standing in court on Oct. 22 ahead of a sentencing request in his first trial, “the Doctor” Cho Ju-bin said he had “put an end to my life as an evildoer.” Perhaps he thought he could shut everything down all at once the way you can in the world of Telegram, where access records can be erased with the touch of a “delete” button. I had spent the last year on the other side, standing with the victims seeking to escape from Cho and the Nth Room and Doctor’s Room incidents. They are trapped in a form of anguish that cannot be put to rest so easily.

I first met these victims in November 2019 while I was conducting an investigation for an article in a feature story on the topic of “spreading sexual exploitation on Telegram.” A few more of them contacted me after seeing the piece. I helped them with their reports to police and introduced them to support groups such as the Joint Committee for Countermeasures on Telegram Sexual Exploitation. There wasn’t a lot I could do; mostly, I just stood by them. “A” was one of those victims.

I received a phone call from A a few days before Cho’s remarks in court about “putting an end” to his evil ways. She barraged me with anxious questions. “Why can’t they seek the death penalty against him? What happens if he gets released for being a model prisoner?” she asked. She went on to say what she really wanted to express.

“I’ve heard there are a lot of victims who still haven’t filed reports and who are afraid of petitioning for stern punishment,” she said. “It makes sense. That’s why I want to speak out first.” Somewhere along the way, A had developed a sense of calling, a need to use her own suffering as a way of changing the world.

“I can’t just let all of this end without the world knowing about all the victims who are still suffering,” she explained.

I recalled the shock I experienced a year earlier when it first began investigating the story. The same evening that I spoke with the victim, I watched as sexually exploitive materials showing her were posted in real time in the Doctor’s Room. Personal details such as her address and contact information were shared with countless abusers. As my finger passed over the dialogue screen, I paused. I felt a surge of nausea and guilt within me. Would that amount to even a hundredth of the suffering that the victims went through? The story went out, but the Doctor was still at large. I suspected he might prove difficult to catch. Overseas cooperation was not panning out, and in many cases the digital sex crime investigations were being stymied by a lack of evidence.

Even after culprits were finally captured, they got off with a slap on the wrist. Most disturbing was how maliciously and secretively the Doctor went about committing his crimes. His victims were fearful that they might end up regretting ever doing any interviews.

Even then, perpetrators remained at large. The Hankyoreh’s account for tips on the Telegram story received a message from another abuser asking us to “write about my room too,” along with a message from the Doctor himself mockingly suggesting that we “talk.” It pained me to think that the Hankyoreh might have ended up inadvertently promoting sexual exploitation chat rooms on Telegram. As I continued investigating, I had a number of dreams in which the Doctor was captured. I underwent psychological counseling at the urging of my friends. My counseling told me I needed to “get out of the story,” and I stopped monitoring the room.

Victims’ reactions upon finally seeing the Doctor captured

The Doctor was finally caught in March 2020, four months after I wrote the article. He was a 24-year-old man named Cho Ju-bin. Upon hearing the news of his arrest, I called up the victims. The reaction from A was unexpected. “I thought maybe it would have been better if he hadn’t been caught,” she said, explaining how her hands trembled and her heart raced every time she saw news stories about Cho. All of it was making her relive the events.

More time passed. The world had changed somewhat in the time since Cho was arrested. For the first time ever in South Korea, the identities of Cho and five other suspects were made public during the investigation stages. The National Assembly passed the Nth Room Prevention Act, which increases the legal maximum sentence for digital sex crimes. I told the victims about this, and how it had come about because of how courageous they had been in speaking out. But they were still busy trying to individually delete sexually exploited materials that had resurfaced on social media. Their efforts to have them removed could not keep up with the rate at which they were circulating.

Last summer, I had dinner with “B,” another victim. No sooner had we said goodbye than she suddenly sent me a message saying, “I hope you get along well after I’m gone.” I called her up. We cried together, sharing the despair over a reality where the only thing she could do was repeat to herself how it would “all be all right.” B was trapped in a cycle where she would harm herself and then pledge to “live well” again. She was tormented by the fear that she might never escape from the horrors of her past, as well as terror at the idea of Cho returning to society and harming her. She was also suffering from financial problems. With their addresses made public in the Nth Room and threats directed at them in the offline world, what the victims need most urgently is a safe home; B did not have the money to pay a deposit for an apartment. Instead, she was alternating between cheap student apartments and the homes of her friends.

We cannot let our anger or solidarity weaken

The victims have also been hurt by perspectives that continue to view the incident as “exceptional” and a “freak horror story.” After seeing media reports that highlighted their professions or articles and social media pieces sharing information about their ages and sensational details concerning the crimes, they described the experience as “like being suffocated by other Cho Ju-bins.”

Putting an end to it is not as simply as Cho’s remarks suggested. There needs to be stern punishment of the abusers, and there needs to be a change in the world’s attitudes so that the victims can speak out about their abuse and return to their lives without fear. I have not yet let go of my hope. In the space of one year, the victims have gone from the brink of losing their will to live to affirming their commitment to living their best life, from being desperately wary of others to boldly speaking out for the sake of other victims.

I hope that any other victims who read this do not think their immediate suffering means everything is finished for them. I hope they can believe that it will be possible to recover at one point, that there will be a tomorrow that is different from the despair of today. And when that happens, when the victim’s suffering finally stops, only then will the Telegram sexual exploitation story be truly over. Until then, we cannot let our anger or solidarity weaken.

To mark the first anniversary of the Hankyoreh’s reports of rampant sexual exploitation taking place on Telegram in places such as the Doctor’s Room and Nth Room (as published by the Hankyoreh on Nov. 25, 2019), the Hankyoreh 21 is publishing an archive titled “The Beyond N Project to End Digital Sex Crimes” (stopn.hani.co.kr) on Nov. 23 to share details about the world of digital sex crimes as reported on to date and to capture a record as it emerges going forward. It includes an organizational chart of offenders under the title “N Crimes,” an analysis of court rulings on digital sex crimes under the title “N Misjudgments,” a history of solidarity efforts under the title “N Trackers,” sex education materials under the title “N Beyond the Nth Room,” and a collection of related articles. It offers a comprehensive look at the process of the abuser’s “n” being reclaimed in the name of solidarity. (Korean only).

By Oh Yeon-seo, staff reporter

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

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