The spark that ignited the ‘Nth room’ fire
Images of a man in a neck brace thanking the police for stopping his life as a devil have saturated the media in recent days.
The man is 24-year-old Cho Ju-bin, the alleged mastermind behind multiple chat rooms on Telegram that have reportedly been used to sexually exploit dozens of women and young girls.
The story, referred to as “Nth room,” which was the name of one of these chat rooms, has left the nation in shock. And even more shocking is how these chat rooms were uncovered.
Two female university students, who have dubbed themselves Team Flame, began investigating these chat rooms last July in order to enter an investigative journalism competition held by the Korea News Agency Commission.
Months of work, which including interacting in these sexually explicit and degrading chats, culminated in an article they titled “‘Do you sell child porn?’… Crime flourishing on Telegram,” which not only won the competition but sparked an investigation by police that eventually led to Cho’s arrest on March 16.
These aspiring reporters have already achieved what many journalists can only dream of for their careers, but rather than elation and pride, they say disappointment is the emotion they are overwhelmed with.
“Korea has been taking digital sex crimes so lightly,” said Kim, one of the team members. “We’ve been using words like molka [to describe illegally shot spy cam pornography] to diminish the meaning behind videos of sexual exploitation. It makes it look like a small problem and takes the essence away from it being a digital sexual exploitation crime. We hadn’t thought of digital sex crimes as major crimes, and that is evident in the language that we use. Now that we’ve realized it, we need to change.”
The young women have been swarmed with messages of support since the Nth room scandal began gaining serious traction in the country in recent weeks. They also receive threats on a daily basis but refuse to be discouraged.
With the April 15 general elections fast approaching they have been exerting extra efforts to make sure the issue is not forgiven or forgotten and are sharing their findings on their YouTube channel and blog, while continuing to cooperate with the police and its investigation.
Their most urgent mission is to bring tangible change in the development of the way all sex crimes - not just digital sex ones - are dealt with in Korea. It has long been the case in Korea that sex criminals are given sentences much lower than anticipated by victims or the public, which many believe has led to a proliferation of such crimes and to victims being discouraged to speak out about their experiences.
“Among themselves, the participants [of the Telegram chats] say, ‘I bet the operators are going to get three years in prison, or five max.’ They know that the punishment is going to be low and that the investigation won’t find them if they ‘hide well.’ They’re always ready to start again, believing that Telegram is the safest place for them,” said Lee, the other member of the team.
Team Flame sat down with the Korea JoongAng Daily to talk about their investigation, during which they witnessed explicit, violent and degrading content being shared freely in the darkest of these chat rooms.
They asked to be identified by the alias Kim and Lee to keep their identities hidden. The following are edited excerpts.
A. Kim: I had written on digital sex crimes when I was an intern at a newspaper in 2018. And in the early half of 2019, digital sex crime was one of the hottest issues in society. We wanted to take a deeper look at this issue and decided to enter an open competition for investigative journalism. That was when we found out about the existence of the Nth Room.
We first found Avsnoop, an illegal porn site run by a user named Watchman, through which we found the link to the Gotham Room [one of the biggest Telegram chat rooms]. The Gotham Room was a marketing room where people shared content from the Nth Room with each other. They even shared the personal information of the victims. We couldn’t believe the things that were going on and we decided to start our investigation. We also knew that this wasn’t just something for our coverage, so we reported it to the police the next day. We met with the National Police Agency and we’ve been cooperating since.
How did you manage to get into these chat rooms?
Kim: Luckily, we didn’t need to pay. There were at least a hundred chat rooms that were free, where content from the Nth room or the Baksa Room [the other main chat room] was being shared. When we entered, the manager of the chat room told us to change our profile picture to an adult animation and that was it. But there are rooms where you’re required to hand over explicit pictures or videos to get in. Fortunately, we were not asked to prove that we were male, but there were some rooms that demanded people take pictures of their genitals to prove themselves along with their nicknames as identification.
Is it true that there was a chat room that specifically dealt with content featuring children?
Lee: It was called the Loli room [taken from the term Lolita Complex]. There were videos of little girls crawling around and people would film them in sexually objectifying ways.
Kim: People frequently uploaded videos of girls as young as elementary school with their genitals showing. I think some of them were family members, like cousins or nieces. They weren’t required to do so. They just did it because they wanted to.
Lee: They voluntarily uploaded those videos themselves, because that way, they would get invited into chat rooms where more graphic content was being shared.
Were there any victims or participants from outside of Korea?
Kim: Yes - I’d say almost half. Once, there was even a link that led to a site where foreigners were sharing illegal material among themselves, and the Korean users joined.
We keep emphasizing that we can’t tell the exact volume of damage done by the Nth room because people were coming in from everywhere.
People talk about whether reports of 260,000 users is accurate, but that’s really not the point, and mentioning that number means that people don’t understand the scale of how digital sex crime spreads and regenerates.
Lee: When you have someone’s contact information saved on your phone and they log onto Telegram, you get a notification message. When I got a message, I was suspicious of why this person I knew would use Telegram but still hoped that it wasn’t a big deal. But when I saw the participant list of the illegal chat room I was in, I saw his name at the top because I had his contact. I was so angry. Was he crazy?
I knew him well and we were close in a way. He seemed like just a normal guy. I debated with myself on whether I should call him out or do something. I decided not to in the end because I was afraid he would alert one of the managers of the chat room. I felt like there was no one we could trust.
Were you required to react to content to remain in the chat rooms?
Lee: There were times when we had to. And although I felt mortified, I just blended into their world - calling the victims [within the videos] by names and grading them. For them it was just like talking about any other everyday mundane subject. For them, sexual harassment was a mundane part of their lives. We saved anything that could be used to identify users to make a report to the police. But honestly, interacting in the chat rooms wasn’t even one of the most difficult parts of the experience.
Kim: What was agonizing was to watch people victimized at every moment. When it had been six months past our first Nth room report, we were so frustrated that there were still victims and nothing was being done. We were so angry at how the police couldn’t catch them even when news had already gotten out. We got to the point where we thought about leaving the country, because it’s a country that can’t deal with this.
Did any of the participants ever question the material being produced and shared?
Kim: No. They call everything porn or data and equate the people who feed them their “porn” as heroes. There was no remorse or sense of guilt. But at the same time, they were so sensitive when it came to their own identities being exposed.
Have any of the users tried to contact you after the story broke?
Kim: We have been getting letters of apology from some Telegram participants. I remember one that really blabbed on without a core message. I didn’t even read carefully through it because it was so long and unorganized, but his point was that, he realized this was illegal and it really tormented him. He didn’t take any action against the content being shared which made him very psychologically stressed and he believed that this also makes him a victim too. He said he really reflected on his actions but also thinks he’s a victim too.
Overall, how to you feel about your work?
Lee: We’re actually more disappointed than we are proud. I think I’m worried. What if, despite all the work that’s been achieved, the reality doesn’t change? Everything - the legislation, the judicial system, the education system and society’s awareness - needs to change, but what if that’s not the case? I really hope that everyone’s efforts pay off, but I’m worried.
Right now, prosecutors have requested a year in prison for Kelly (one of the main suspects), and three years and six months in prison for Watchman (another main suspect). They are alleged to have committed some of the worst crimes possible against children, and that’s all they get. Even with all the news and everything that’s going on, the legal system is not on par with the social change, and it makes us worried.
What is hindering proper measures from being taken on this problem?
Kim: Right now, there aren’t any clear guidelines. It means that there aren’t proper standards for investigations to be conducted or on how criminals should be punished. Lack of a clear and firm stance makes it seem like such crime is not as serious as it is.
Lee: Another maddening thing is the sentences imposed on sex criminals. The level of punishment dictated by the law is already low, but judges then hand down sentences ever lower than that criteria. If they had really thought about those cases as if they affected their own lives, they would not make those calls.
Kim: The times call for change. And even if their punishments are not equitable to their victim’s pain, at the very least sentences need to be handed down according to the demands of the times. Right now, it’s all just lagging behind.
What do you think lies at the heart of this case?
Kim: The essence is misogyny. It’s about objectifying women and not treating them as equal beings. It’s a fundamental trait of all the participants. In the offline world, it seems as though women’s rights have improved. But in the virtual world, its a different story. It’s all about people’s awareness, but then awareness is shaped by the society. We can’t just blame individuals. We have to realize that the state has let this happen - by imposing weak punishments on perpetrators and failing to protect victims.
Lee: We were hoping that Korean society as a whole was going to work together to tackle this, but we’re upset to see that it has become another gender conflict. We didn’t want to cause a fight between men and women, but some people are saying that women are making a fuss out of nothing and that the victims are not real victims because they’re not “innocent.” But right now, the victims have to hide, and sex crimes are the only type of crime where the victims have to hide themselves. Please stop.
Kim: People around us even say that it’s a pity that we can’t reveal ourselves. We’re also sad that in this society, we still can’t punish the criminals properly and we have to hide as the reporters.
What would you like to see happen next?
Kim: They say that voting is the flower of democracy. But right now because the legislation is not functioning properly, the public needs to exert their power. I believe that this could be the beginning of development at the National Assembly, and people can really call for change. A lot of politicians are mentioning the Nth room case, but they shouldn’t just stop there. People need to take an interest in what each politician is saying and make sure that they continue to take action over the issues, even after the elections.
Lee: I hope that people will keep paying attention even after the general elections. That’s what worries me the most right now. We’ve been getting a lot of news about the election, and less about the Nth room. But I hope that people will keep this fire lit. Like an ever-glowing flame, I hope you all take interest in both digital sex crimes and other sex crimes.
BY YOON SO-YEON [email@example.com]
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