Seoul, South Korea (CNN)Between the ages of 11 and 14, South Korean teenager Ji-o was threatened, stalked and pressured into taking sexually explicit photos of herself by men on the internet.
She joined Twitter in 2015 as a lonely 11-year-old elementary student, hoping to make friends, according to Choi Yunu, from non-governmental organization Mental Health Korea. As she interacted with people on the platform, she read about a way to make pocket money. People online would send her vouchers for snacks, and all she had to do was share pictures of her breasts.
But the exchange was a trick -- ultimately, those uploads were used to blackmail her into accepting an exploitative pattern of abuse. One man claiming to be a 36-year-old father threatened to tell Ji-o's parents what she was doing if she didn't take explicit pictures for him. Another man set up a rule that she needed to respond to his messages within two minutes or he would send men to beat her up, although it's unclear whether he knew where she lived and if so, how he had that information. Terrified of missing a notification, she slept with earphones in so that she would be woken by the buzz of an incoming message.
As a young girl, she lacked the maturity to rationalize what was happening to her. South Korea's culture of victim blaming -- even for people as young and vulnerable as Ji-o -- prevented her from seeking help.
Now 16, Ji-o -- not her real name -- is still dealing with the aftermath of the three-plus years she spent subjected to online abuse and threats. She says she switched her phone number eight times and moved away from her parents' home in rural South Korea to the capital Seoul, where she lives with her sister. She wants to change her name.
While digital sex crimes are a problem all over the world, they are a particular issue in South Korea, which has one of the world's highest rates of smartphone ownership. Inadequate laws, weak sentencing, and poor policing mean that such crimes are rarely treated seriously by the justice system -- and as a result, activists say victims feel discouraged from coming forward.
Last year, however, a digital sex crime case that bore some chilling similarities to Ji-o's situation appears to have sparked change. After an outpouring of disgust over the case, some laws have been tightened and, in November, the ringleader was handed an unusually long sentence.
But advocates say much more needs to be done to take the issue of digital sex crime seriously -- and keep young girls and women safe from dangers on the other side of the screen.
Inside the chat rooms
The case that prompted the recent changes in South Korea's laws involved a university graduate on bed rest.
As he recovered from an operation to make his limbs longer, then-23-year-old Cho Joo-bin began trying to make money on the internet. He styled himself as a businessman in his 40s who had served prison time and had an amputated foot, and gave himself a nickname: Guru.
In September 2019, he founded a group chat called Guru's Room on the encrypted platform Telegram, where messages can be set to disappear after they have been read. That room would become the setting for the most notorious digital sex crime case in South Korea, where men spent thousands of dollars to witness -- and demand -- the abuse of young girls and women.
Cho and his collaborators had a simple playbook for recruiting victims online. They offered them jobs as part-time models, then solicited compromising photographs from them, before coercing them into making degrading material by threatening to release their personal information and images to other internet users. Cho told them to raise their pinky finger in pictures which he later admitted was a way of branding the content. Authorities say there were more than 100 victims, including 26 girls in their teens.
"Foolishly, I was confident I wouldn't be caught and I intended to make my own brand with my sexual content," Cho said in September at one of his collaborator's trials.
At the same time, he and his collaborators recruited members, offering teaser videos of sexually explicit content to try to lure them into paying for entry into one of the exclusive rooms where they had access to women and girls -- referred to by Cho as "slaves" -- who they could instruct to create sexually explicit material. These rooms were illegal -- South Korean law forbids producing any sexually explicit material.
He attracted thousands of members, some of them paid. One group member -- who is known only as Lee -- sent his personal information and 3.6 million won ($3,300) to Cho as an entrance fee to get into the chat rooms, he testified in court, according to South Korean non-governmental organization Tacteen Naeil. That seems to have been on the higher end for entry -- police said last year that buyers normally spent about $1,200 to enter a room paying with bitcoin.
Lee also paid into a "slave funding account," which he believed was going to the victims as payment, but which he later found out went to Cho.
Another member, who paid Cho more than 1 million won (about $920) and verified himself by taking a selfie holding his social security ID card, said that Cho often deleted and created new rooms. Entry fees to the different rooms were higher for those with victims considered to be better looking.
As paid users became involved in the criminal rooms, the information they had given at the start became incriminating. When Cho contacted Lee saying he was low on cash, Lee gave him 650,000 won ($600) as he was afraid Cho might contact his wife. The other member -- who cannot be named for legal reasons -- said he remained a member as he was afraid of being threatened by Cho.
In 2019, two university journalism students alerted authorities to his illegal enterprise after joining the groups undercover using nicknames. In March 2020, authorities busted the network of chatrooms.
Dozens were arrested over their involvement in the Telegram ring. One alleged collaborator was only 16 years old. "He has been good with computers since he was in elementary school," his lawyer said in court. "Because of the lack of parents' protection or supervision, he consequently reached a trash island named 'Guru's Room' in the vast sea of the internet."
Guru's Room was hardly the only place on the South Korean internet where women and girls were victims of digital sex crimes.
Cho had been inspired by other Telegram groups, including one named Nth room, run by someone who called himself GodGod. The journalism students, who asked to use the pseudonyms Kwon and Ahn to protect their safety, said there were many operators running similar chats on Telegram -- and links to the groups could be found from a simple keyword search on Google.
A Telegram spokesperson told CNN that publicly available content which violates their terms of conditions is taken down. Already this month, more than 7,000 groups and channels related to child abuse have been banned, according to Telegram's Stop Child Abuse channel.
"Sexual violence and the abuse of minors are not welcome on our platform," Telegram's spokesperson said in a statement.
According to police, more than 2,500 people were detained last year for digital sex crimes in South Korea. Of those, 220 were arrested for alleged sex crimes on Telegram, Discord and so-called darknet sites which cannot be accessed by a regular browser.
The Telegram rooms were among the most egregious examples of South Korea's sex crimes, and were difficult to track given the app's encryption. But Ji-o's case shows young girls are also vulnerable on widely used social media platforms.
Years before Guru's Room or Nth Room were even set up, Ji-o found herself trapped by her own personal information. When she refused to take degrading pictures for the man claiming to be a 36-year-old father, he spread her private details around the internet which others formatted into a graphic, a process known online as "taxidermy" because the victim's information is preserved forever. She still doesn't know how he got her personal details.
After that, huge numbers of people contacted her. Some told her to take off all her clothes, others told her to take photos of herself in school uniform.
"Did you do everything I told you to do?" one man wrote to Ji-o, in direct messages on Twitter seen by CNN.
"Remember: You're not a human, but my toy."
Even as the demands from strangers grew online, Ji-o was afraid to tell anyone. She was scared that telling the police would land her in a juvenile protection facility -- under South Korean law at the time, minors seen as voluntary participants to digital sex crimes faced the prospect of mandatory attendance at such a center. And she was scared to tell her parents, worrying that they wouldn't understand.
In 2018, police asked to speak to her. They had begun investigating a man she had been talking to online, and found her conversation with him while inspecting his phone. They told her that what she had been doing was not good, and that she could end up in a juvenile facility for posting videos and pictures of herself as they violated child and youth protection laws.
Then, because she was underage, they called her parents. Her dad asked why she posted pictures of herself online when she already had everything she needed and hit her, she alleges. Her mother cried and fell silent. They have never talked with Ji-o about the digital sex crimes again.
"It was hell, I blamed myself a lot and I still do," she said, according to Mental Health Korea's Choi. "Most of all, I am disappointed in my parents."
A self-perpetuating problem
The Telegram victims didn't alert police to what was happening. Nor did Ji-o.
In countries all over the world, stigma and the difficulty of going through the justice system prevent victims of digital sex crimes from talking to police. But in South Korea, the barriers are particularly pronounced.
Until the laws changed in 2020, South Korea assumed that some minors were willing participants in crimes perpetrated against them. Minors aged between 13 and 16 who were victims of sexual abuse or rape were viewed legally as consenting parties if they got some kind of benefit -- such as money -- from the perpetrator. These victims could also be sent to juvenile centers for education and protection.
Activist groups said the threat of these education centers seemed like punishment and deterred victims from telling police. The rules also meant that rapists didn't necessarily get punished. In a well-known case in 2014, a 13-year-old girl with a mental disability who left home after breaking her mother's mobile phone screen -- as she was worried
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