Sex abuse ring investigation in South Korea to go public in rare move

South Korean suspect Cho Ju-bin (centre) is surrounded by reporters as he is transferred to a prosecutor's office, at a police station in Seoul. South Korea, on March 25, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL (THE KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Seoul prosecutors have said the investigation into a South Korean man who allegedly ran an online sexual abuse ring targeting girls and women will go public.

According to the Seoul Central District Prosecutors' Office, a committee mandated to review the propriety of disclosing information about criminal cases decided on Wednesday (March 25) to open up the ongoing investigation into Cho Ju-bin.

This marks a rare exception from a Justice Ministry directive in effect since December that forbids publicising criminal cases until the investigation is concluded and guilt is established.

An official at the prosecutor's office said on Thursday that the committee reached the decision "in light of the gravity of the allegations, and other considerations of public interest such as deterring recidivism and similar offences."

Cho, 24, is accused of blackmailing his victims, a large number of whom were minors, into performing violent sex acts and selling footage of the acts on messaging platform Telegram. Reports say as many as 260,000 men were members of the online network where the abusive images were traded. Membership was purchased with cryptocurrency.

In an apparent admission of guilt, Cho said before reporters at a Seoul police station on Wednesday: "I apologise to those who were hurt by me."

On Thursday, prosecutors said they interviewed Cho's lawyer, who officially abandoned the case the previous day, citing inconsistencies between his client's claims and factual circumstances that surfaced later. A pro bono attorney will likely be appointed to defend Cho, prosecutors said.

Prosecutors grilled Cho on Thursday after he agreed to undergo questioning in the absence of an attorney.

In an announcement made the same day, the Justice Ministry said the task force team leading the response to the mammoth scandal will be joined by Seo Ji-hyeon, a high-profile prosecutor who set off the #MeToo movement here with televised testimony that she had been sexually molested by a senior male prosecutor.

The addition of Seo is reflective of growing public calls to have women in charge of the investigation. An online Cheong Wa Dae petition posted on Tuesday demanding more female police officers and prosecutors in the case garnered over 169,000 signatures as of Thursday afternoon.

Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae said on Tuesday that the sexual blackmail ring was a result of Korea's permissive attitude toward sex crimes in cyberspace.

Cho's case will be sent to court after a maximum 20-day investigation by prosecutors. He is now at a Seoul detention centre.

Meantime, the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency said on Thursday that a 16-year-old boy has been sent to prosecutors for running a separate Telegram group chat for sharing clips of child sex abuse.

The group, believed to have been formed in October last year, had between 8,000 and 20,000 men in its membership, according to police. The exact size of the group was hard to track because users were constantly joining and leaving, police said.

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