Most identified Telegram victims are underageMost of the victims identified so far in a pornography ring that enslaved dozens of females are underage, prosecutors said ahead of a fourth round of questioning of the prime suspect, Cho Ju-bin, on Tuesday.
A special task force of the state prosecution service said Cho had admitted to some of the allegations put forward against him, and that his testimonies shed light on the identities of around 20 of his victims - more of half of whom were minors.
Following their preliminary investigation, police said a total of 74 victims - including 16 minors - were allegedly forced into sexual slavery by Cho, though the case was handed off to state prosecutors without most of those victims having been identified.
According to police, Cho baited the victims - all female - online with offers of employment and money and asked them to send a series of increasingly lurid photographs of themselves. He then blackmailed the victims to force them to engage in pornographic acts on video, threatening to expose the images to victims’ contacts if they did not comply.
Cho is believed to have distributed such pornographic photos and videos through chat rooms on the Telegram messaging app to paying members.
The circumstances of these alleged crimes means Cho could be charged with up to 12 indictments, ranging from violations of laws prohibiting the making and distribution of child pornography, sexual abuse, digital sex crimes, extortion, fraud, and illegal use of personal information.
He also faces a number of separate criminal allegations, like that he conspired to murder the child of a woman at the solicitation of one of his alleged criminal associates, and that he threatened and extorted money from a number of prominent personalities like JTBC President Sohn Suk-hee.
Legal analysts say he could receive a jail sentence of 15 years if proven guilty of these allegations, but possibly up to life imprisonment given the immense public outcry over the seriousness of the alleged crimes.
Cho, who was grilled by prosecutors Tuesday aided by a new lawyer he hired, continues to deny some of these accusations and most notably refuses to cooperate with investigators in unlocking the smartphones police obtained from his person as evidence, prosecutors said.
Victims still need to be questioned, prosecutors added, but any investigation involving them in the future will be kept to a minimum level in order to protect their privacy.
The Ministry of Justice and Supreme Prosecutors’ Office said the victims will also receive financial support from the government to assist in any medical treatment they require, as well as to help with legal support.
A key aspect of the case is discovering the whereabouts of the profits Cho allegedly collected from the Telegram chat rooms, mostly in the form of cryptocurrency. Local press reports say this amount could be more than 3.2 billion won ($2.6 million).
On Tuesday, Cho’s new attorney Kim Ho-jae told the press that Cho’s earnings did not reach 3.2 billion won but were more than several tens of millions of won. When asked if it was around a hundred million won, the lawyer answered, “around that much.” According to prosecutors, Cho said his main motive behind the crimes was financial.
Independent of Cho’s own case, public furor continues to rage about the tens of thousands of paying members that bought the pornographic material on Telegram.
Police raided three cryptocurrency exchanges in Korea to trace Cho’s profits to individual consumers, and have already obtained the usernames of around 15,000 people who entered the chat rooms.
On Friday, a man in his 40s committed suicide in Seoul, leaving behind a note that said he had sent money to Cho. Three other alleged consumers have confessed to authorities so far, police revealed on Tuesday.
BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [firstname.lastname@example.org]