South Korea Needs to Contend With Sexual Violence

The failed extradition of a child pornographer highlights the Korean legal system’s laxity toward a certain kind of criminal.

South Korean demonstrators hold banners during a rally to mark International Women's Day as part of the country's #MeToo movement in Seoul on March 8, 2018.
South Korean demonstrators hold banners during a rally to mark International Women's Day as part of the country's #MeToo movement in Seoul on March 8, 2018. JUNG YEON-JE/AFP via Getty Images

In early July, Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon died by suicide amid a former assistant’s public accusations against him of yearslong sexual assault and harassment. But Park’s death overshadows a darker, and more telling, development from days earlier. On July 6, South Korea denied the United States’ request to extradite Son Jong-woo, the longtime operator of the world’s largest darknet child pornography website, after his completion of a slap-on-the-wrist term of 18 months in prison.

Far from an anomaly, the decision underscores official South Korea’s turning of a blind eye to a culture of sexual abuse, crimes against women and children, and worse. It’s the mayor’s suicide, to the extent it represents any sort of reckoning with the subject at all, that is the aberration.

Making sense of the South Korean judicial system’s laxity toward perpetrators of sexual abuse requires an understanding of gender relations in a deeply patriarchal country. To start, South Korean women confront harsher economic realities and wield far less political power than do their male peers. The World Economic Forum’s 2020 Global Gender Gap Index ranks South Korea 127 out of 153 countries when it comes to economic participation and opportunity, making it the largest gap among advanced economies. South Korean women struggle to find high-paying employment—less than 4 percent of top executives are women—and are subject to rampant workplace discrimination. Sadly, Park’s former assistant does not appear to be an anomaly in this respect. A 2015 government survey found that 8 out of 10 respondents reported that they had experienced some form of sexual harassment in the workplace.

When it comes to gender-based violence, Korean women fare no better. According to South Korean police, in 2019 women accounted for 98 percent of victims in the nearly 10,000 cases of crimes against intimate partners, and the Korea Women’s Hotline estimated that a woman was killed or nearly killed every 1.8 days that year. Korean women account for more than half of all homicide victims, making it one of the highest rates of female murder in the world. According to a 2014 study by the Korea Women’s Hotline, nearly 90 percent of female respondents said they had experienced physical or emotional abuse from a romantic partner. Workplace harassment and discrimination, domestic violence, rape—none of these is legal. But clearly, the laws themselves do not provide sufficient deterrence for perpetrators of sexual- or gender-based violence.

Even still, how is it that someone who profited to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars hosting a child pornography website over three years was sentenced to a year and a half in prison? Simply put, that’s the pattern: South Korean courts are notoriously lenient when it comes to sex crimes. It wasn’t until this year that the age of consent was raised from 13 to 16, and it wasn’t until 2013 that the Supreme Court upheld the country’s first conviction of spousal rape. Historically speaking in South Korea, the courts and public alike have considered problems related to sexual assault or domestic violence “private matters” to be resolved among the involved parties themselves. What’s more, only 30 percent of judges and less than 4 percent of police officers are women, which has clear ramifications for how crimes of this nature are treated in the Korean legal system.

Even when prosecutors obtain a successfully conviction of a sex crime, the assailant is often handed a suspended sentence. (This year, the former chairman of the major multinational DB Group received a suspended 30-month prison sentence after being convicted of raping his maid and sexually assaulting his assistant.) And proving rape and other sex crimes in South Korea is still difficult under the country’s narrow legal definitions. To make matters worse, defendants could previously cite drunkenness as a legal defense for rape, and some have even exploited South Korea’s tough defamation laws to sue their alleged victims.

Back to Son Jong-woo. In this legal environment, Son’s light sentence is less surprising. But still, Son’s website, which the U.S. Justice Department describes as the “first of its kind to monetize child exploitation videos using bitcoin,” was a particularly heinous operation. The department indicted Son on nine counts including producing, advertising, and distributing child pornography as well as conspiracy and money laundering (though, due to issues of double jeopardy, only the final charge was considered in the extradition petition).

It is difficult to quantify the horror of Son’s website, but we can try. In a joint operation by the United States, the United Kingdom, and South Korea, agents uncovered 8 terabytes of child pornography and catalogued more than 250,000 unique videos on the site (45 percent of which were previously unknown). What began as an investigation into illicit transactions on the dark web led agents to the 23-year-old’s operation and its 337 global users. Investigators also rescued 23 children from the United States, Spain, and the U.K. who were being actively abused by  users of the site.

Given the severity of Son’s crimes, it would be reasonable to assume that the South Korean court had a credible reason for rejecting Washington’s extradition request. Instead, the Seoul High Court denied the extradition on the grounds of Son’s South Korean citizenship (despite having extradited a South Korean national to the United States already this year), adding that extraditing him to the United States would “hamper South Korea’s investigation into sexually exploitative content.” (It is unclear whether such an investigation is underway.) Son’s website wasn’t just a Korean enterprise but an international one uniting pedophiles across the globe and involving child victims of various nationalities, some of whom were from the United States.

More troubling still, Seoul’s historic record on cases involving “sexually exploitative content” is spotty at best. This March heralded the fallout of the infamous “Nth Room,” a series of encrypted chats featuring sexually exploitative videos (including child pornography). While authorities continue to track down the hundreds of participants, some have already received astoundingly light sentences. In April, courts handed down a one-year sentence to one of the chat’s ringleaders. Other Nth Room accomplices have been given similarly light sentences, despite possessing and distributing child pornography. And don’t forget the website Soranet, which housed thousands of illegally filmed spycam porn videos for millions of viewers and whose leader squeaked away with a four-year sentence.

Importantly, official South Korea’s apathy in the face of sexual abuse is hardly reflected in public sentiment. Several petitions calling for Son’s extradition have garnered tens of thousands of signatures from outraged netizens around the world. The overseas website Digital Prison also released the identities of Son (whose face has been barely concealed in the media) and the judges who rejected the United States’ extradition request. A government petition in South Korea calling for the disqualification of one of the presiding judges of Son’s case from his Supreme Court justice nomination has more than 500,000 signatures, making it one of the largest petitions currently on the Blue House site.

Protests and petitions are perhaps signs of genuine desire to overhaul the way South Korea handles crimes of this nature, but deep and persistent gender divides combined with a lack of female representation in the judicial system may prove to be significant obstacles in effecting systemic change. In this case, will public outrage translate into a more serious policy on sexual exploitation? So far, at least as far as the Seoul government and the nation’s judiciary are concerned, the answer seems to be no.

Olivia Schieber is the senior program manager of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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