SEOUL (THE KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK, REUTERS) - A regular volunteer at an orphanage in South Korea has been arrested for alleged sex crimes against women and underage girls in an operation where they were tricked or blackmailed into sharing sexual images of themselves in Telegram chat rooms.
Following public uproar over the case, police on Tuesday (March 24) unveiled the identity of 24-year-old Cho Ju-bin, the main suspect who was arrested last week.
Cho, who goes by the nickname "doctor" on the encrypted messaging platform, is accused of distributing sexual content across several different Telegram chat rooms and receiving payment in cryptocurrency. He is said to have amassed 260,000 users.
Victims were told to send sexual images of themselves and Cho promised them high-paying jobs, which did not exist, police said. He is accused of using the pictures to blackmail the victims into sending more videos.
At least 74 women, including 16 underage girls, were "virtually enslaved" for several months, police said. In some cases, the victims were blackmailed into committing violent acts on themselves.
According to multiple reports, Cho volunteered at an orphanage in Incheon on weekends from October 2017 until very recently. He was even featured in a news article published by an online media outlet last November.
"I started volunteer work after completing my compulsory military service. I wanted to help others because I have received help from many people," Cho was quoted as saying in the article.
The time frame of his volunteer activity overlapped with the alleged sexual exploitation and assaults of the victims and the distribution of sexually oriented videos on Telegram. Police suspected he began operating the Telegram chat rooms in late 2018 and continued until his arrest.
Cho majored in communication and information at a college in Incheon from 2014 to 2018, writing articles and columns for the school newspaper and eventually becoming managing editor.
He was also active online in high school and responded to some 500 questions posted on South Korea's largest portal operator, Naver.
In a 2013 response to a post by a writer whose uncle had sexually molested his older sister, Cho advised: "Tell your parents. Sexual assault happens frequently between relatives. Always be vigilant."
Amid the explosion of public anger over the case, the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency disclosed more information about Cho on Tuesday.
A petition filed with the presidential office of Cheong Wa Dae, calling for the full disclosure of Cho's identity, had garnered over 2.5 million signatures as of Tuesday afternoon. This is the largest number of supporters for any petition on the presidential website to date.
Some 124 suspects had been arrested and 18 operators of chat rooms on Telegram and other social media had been detained as a result of investigations into such sexual crimes since last September.
President Moon Jae-in on Monday called for a full investigation into the case and also urged the police to expand their probe into the members of the chat rooms to change the perception of perpetrators who "hide behind anonymity".
The police probe is widely expected to expand to tens of thousands of users who accessed illegal videos on Telegram. Some users had paid up to 1.5 million won ($1,726).
As of Tuesday afternoon, over 1.8 million people were in support of a separate petition demanding the disclosure of the 260,000 users of the illegal content.