South Korea's Moon calls for full probe into online sexual blackmail ring

South Korea's President Moon Jae-in speaks during a ceremony to mark the 101th anniversary of the March 1st Independence Movement Day in Seoul, on March 1, 2020.

SEOUL (REUTERS) - South Korean President Moon Jae-in called on Monday (March 23) for a full investigation into a network of chat rooms at the heart of an operation to blackmail women and underage girls into sharing sexual images of themselves.

The National Police Agency told reporters that 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.

The perpetrators would attract victims through fake job ads and solicit compromising photographs. They would then threaten to release the photographs if the victims did not send images of increasingly degrading and violent acts, the police said.

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.

Public outrage hit critical mass on Monday as a petition gathered over 2.3 million signatures - passing a threshold that requires the president's office to respond.

The author of the petition urged the authorities to disclose the identity and the face of the man, who allegedly lured victims into taking nude images of themselves and shared them on a chat room on Telegram, a popular encrypted messaging app.

The petition also criticized other participants who paid as much as 1.5 million won (S$1,700) to view the images.

Police said as a matter of policy they would not reveal the name of the man believed to be at the centre of the network, who went by the username "GodGod."

The presidential Blue House spokesman Kang Min-seok told reporters that Moon considered the alleged crimes to be "a cruel act that destroyed human life" and that he had asked police to treat the case as a serious crime.

Moon also urged police to expand their investigation into the members of the chat rooms to change the perception of perpetrators who "hide behind anonymity".

As digital sex crimes rise worldwide, South Korea has also become the global epicentre of spycam pornography - the use of tiny, hidden cameras to film victims naked, urinating or mid-sex.

Late last year South Korean, British and US authorities said they had arrested 337 people worldwide, including 223 South Koreans, after knocking out a child pornography web site operated from South Korea.

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