Operator of massive child porn ring won't be extradited
In a controversial ruling that set off an online uproar, a Korean court on Monday turned down a request from the United States for the extradition of Son Jong-woo, the convicted operator of the largest child pornography website in the world.
Son was released on Monday after the court decision which generated intense public outrage. Although he had served his entire 18-month sentence, he was still being held pending a decision on the extradition request.
The Seoul High Court ruled that while the U.S. extradition request met the necessary legal requirements, it was more desirable to keep Son in Korea in order to investigate his crimes more thoroughly.
“In order to eradicate this type of crime, an investigation is necessary to identify all members of the Welcome to Video website, who themselves are consumers and can become potential creators [of child pornography],” the court said.
“If Son Jong-woo is extradited to the United States, Korea’s investigation into the website may be concluded as unfinished in its current state.”
Son, 24, ran a website on the so-called dark web — a swath of the internet inaccessible through regular browsers — called “Welcome to Video,” which the U.S. Justice Department at the time called the “largest child sexual exploitation market by volume of content."
Since 2017, Korean, U.S. and British authorities mounted a massive sting operation that culminated in the arrest of hundreds of users from around the world — including 223 Korean nationals — as well as Son’s own arrest in March 2018.
Son was subsequently convicted and given an 18-month prison sentence by a Korean court. The ruling was panned internationally as being too lenient in comparison with his crimes.
Though Son was due for release in April, the court approved his extended detention after the U.S. Justice Department sought his extradition to the United States, where he has been indicted on charges of producing and distributing child pornography, conspiring to distribute those materials and laundering monetary instruments.
Had he been extradited, the double jeopardy principle would have led to Son being charged for only money laundering in the United States, which Korean prosecutors chose not to include in their initial indictments against him. Son would have faced a maximum prison sentence of 20 years for each of the three counts of laundering monetary instruments.
In addition to a host of trending hashtags slamming Korea’s judiciary — causing the story to go viral within hours of the decision — several civic groups also released public statements disparaging the court for its lack of sympathy toward the victims of serious sex crimes. The U.S. indictment, filed in August 2018 in a federal district court in Washington, accused Son of distributing pornographic materials that included victims as young as the age of a toddler.
The court stressed that its decision to turn down extradition did not mean it was handing Son a pardon for his crimes, adding it also concurred with the argument that Son should be sent to the United States where he can be punished strictly to uphold justice and prevent recurrences of similar crimes.
Still, the court wrote that “the basis behind the extradition system is not to send a criminal to another place he or she can be punished more harshly."
The court added that Son needed to remain in Korea to stand as a witness in the continuing probe into the child pornography ring and its 223 Korean members, as well as other potential users whose identifies have not yet been uncovered.
Korea’s Justice Ministry also plans to continue its investigation into Son and may charge him with further indictments not applied in his earlier conviction, like concealment of criminal proceeds.
Son is believed to have earned over 400 million won ($335,000) through selling child pornography on his website, generated through cryptocurrency like Bitcoin.
The convict’s family thanked the court for its decision to deny Son’s extradition. His father told the press after the ruling that he would “no longer let [his] son use the computer” in the future.
BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [firstname.lastname@example.org]
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