Untouched yet ruined: Toll of South Korea spycam epidemic

In this picture taken on Nov 8, 2019, an employee works in the office of the Korea Communications Standards Commission in Seoul tasked with hunting down and removing internet sex videos posted without consent. PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL (THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION) - The wedding hall was booked and home furnishing all bought but the bride - one of thousands of women to fall victim to an epidemic of high-tech voyeurism in South Korea - is not here.

Lee Yu-jung took her own life after a colleague secretly filmed her in the changing room of the hospital where they both worked, the country's first reported 'spycam' death.

Footage of Lee was found among a bigger cache of video of women, all illegally snatched in the country's spycam epidemic, often with cheap devices as small as a key ring.

"I am angry. I don't want to believe that she's gone," said Lee Young-tae, father of the 26-year-old pathologist, who killed herself by leaping from a building in September.

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

Most victims are women - rights groups say the scandal is indicative of wider sexism in society - and Lee's case has spotlighted the mental toll it can take on its victims, along with the leniency of punishments meted out to many men.

Before Lee died, her father said she had taken to drink and anti-depressants after police caught the man filming illicitly in a supermarket, only to discover his stash of secret footage, her naked body among the many women he had previously filmed.

In November, he was sentenced to 10 months in jail.

Lee's father believes the man, also a pathologist, got off lightly. Under the law, he could face up to five years in jail.

"I want the court to look at illegal filming as a crime that is as severe as sexual assault. There is a big gap now," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation at his home in a rural town near the South Korean port city of Busan.

Women's rights campaigners also want tougher penalties, saying voyeurs should not be let off lightly just because they stop short of an actual physical assault.

The mental fallout is just as devastating, they say.

Nearly one in four women who has been harassed or secretly filmed has thought about suicide, according to an October survey of 2,000 victims by the Korean Women's Development Institute, a government think tank.

Around the world, sexual predators have capitalised on technology to target women, from "revenge porn" - releasing naked pictures of former partners - to "upskirting", using phones to look up women's skirts.

The problem is especially acute in tech-savvy South Korea, where thousands of women have taken to the streets in protest.

Official figures showed there were about 6,000 cases of the so-called spycam porn in 2018 and about 6,500 the year before.

Culprits typically film in public places, changing rooms or toilets, or in hotels, then sell the footage to porn sites.

A South Korean porn website that attracted more than a million users and hosted thousands of spycam videos thrived for years until it was shut down in 2016 after activist complaints.

A co-founder was jailed last year.

Footage can fetch up to 100,000 won (S$120), with top earners netting more than 100 million won a month, local media say.

The government has introduced a slew of counter measures: longer jail terms, daily checks in public toilets and a taskforce to help victims kill off the unwanted online videos.

But the problem is unabated.

South Korea's Ministry of Gender Equality and Family said offenders must get punishments that match the severity of the offence, and that the country's highest court is drafting new sentencing guidelines on digital sex crimes.

It said raising awareness about women's rights was also key.

"In order to eliminate digital sex crimes, the wrong idea that sexually objectifies a woman's body must be changed first,"the ministry said in comments to the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Nor are celebrities immune from sexual invasion.

The suicide of K-pop star Koo Hara in November sparked nationwide debate about the health impact on women, whatever their status, from these new and extreme invasions of privacy.

Prior to her death, Koo had fought a court battle against an ex-boyfriend who threatened to release their sex videos. He was given a suspended jail sentence for assault and blackmail.

Lawyer Kim Young-mi said victims of spycam or revenge porn often had to relive their trauma in repeated bids to take videos off the internet, and that current laws were no deterrent.

"The punishment of the circulation of sex videos is too weak compared to the damage inflicted on the victim," said Kim, a director at the Korean Women Lawyers Association.

A study by the Seoul-based non-profit group found that just 5 per cent of the nearly 2,000 illicit filming cases that went to court between 2011 and 2016 ended with a prison sentence.

Mass protests in 2018 led to more women overcoming stigma to report the crime, said counsellor Kim Milinae at the Gwangju Women Link, which provides legal support to victims.

But the counsellor, who is helping Yu-jung's family, called for mental health support for the victims and family who come forward to cope with what she called a patriarchal system.

"(Digital crime) does not involve physical force but the impact is there, it exists and it lasts for a long time," she said.

After her daughter died, Yu-jung's mother attempted suicide and the father took some time off his work as a truck driver.

As she scrolled through photos on a phone - happy times of her daughter holidaying with her fiancé - Jeong Hee-ho said she had been reluctant to speak out but was desperate for change.

"I had not thought about how spycam could affect my life until now," said the 49-year-old mother.

"I know I can't bring back her life, so I am doing this to prevent more people from becoming spycam victims."

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