Last week, authorities arrested an elementary school principal in South Korea who had installed a spy camera inside a bathroom used by the school’s female staff members.
In October, authorities arrested a group of men who had bribed a motel worker to install spy cameras in all rooms. Over a few months, they filmed hundreds of guests without their consent, later blackmailing some guests and threatening to release footage.
Individually, these cases are horrifying. Together, they help paint a picture of how pervasive digital sex crimes – digital images, almost always of women and girls, captured and shared without consent, and sometimes manipulated – continue to be in South Korea. For example, more than 1,200 teenagers have reported being victims of digital sex crimes so far this year, according to the Women’s Human Rights Institute of Korea. This is despite the government’s expressed commitments following massive protests against government inaction in 2018 and the Telegram Nth room case – a case involving extreme abuses and many victims – last year.
Human Rights Watch research shows what happens when digital sex crimes and other forms of online abuse in South Korea are not properly addressed: traumatized victims, and ruined lives. Under international law, the South Korean government is obligated to address discriminatory behavior, including online gender-based violence. It’s time it takes that obligation seriously and prioritizes comprehensive, meaningful action over words.
As part of previous commitments, the South Korean government increased the severity of punishments for digital sex crimes. But focusing on punishment is insufficient. It is essential that the government prioritize making access to services available to survivors and tackle prevention by addressing South Korea’s deeply entrenched gender inequity. This includes passing a comprehensive anti-discrimination law and reform of sexuality education to remove gender stereotypes and include teaching about consent, gender-based violence, healthy relationships, and digital citizenship, including digital sex crimes. The government should also take urgent action to increase women’s participation in the legal and law enforcement sectors.
Digital sex crimes continue to increase at an alarming rate. An updated and evolving comprehensive action plan for reducing the prevalence and impact of digital sex crimes is urgently needed – and without it, women and girls in South Korea will continue to face long-term harm.