Prosecutors mulling formal charge on chatroom sex abuse suspect

South Korean prosecutors began yesterday reviewing whether to formally charge a man who operated chatrooms where he posted sexually abusive videos of blackmailed women.

South Korean prosecutors began yesterday reviewing whether to formally charge a man arrested last week on allegations he operated secret chatrooms where he posted sexually abusive videos of blackmailed women in return for cryptocurrency payments.

The allegations have triggered intense public uproar and soul-searching over a culture that critics say is lenient about sexual violence and continuously fails the victims, prompting President Moon Jae-in to call for thorough investigation and stern punishment for operators of such chatrooms and their users.

Wearing a neck brace and handcuffed to his waist, the suspect, Cho Ju-bin, was paraded before journalists at the Jongno Police Station in Seoul before officers drove him to the prosecutors’ office.

Police officers created a perimeter around the station’s gate to block off angry protesters, who waved signs that read “From chatroom to prison” and “Punish all users” and yelled “Give him the highest penalty!”

“Thank you for stopping the life of a devil (I) couldn’t stop,” Cho said in front of a barrage of camera flashes.

Before sending Cho’s case to prosecutors, police said they had arrested 18 people since September while investigating private chatrooms on the Telegram messaging app, where users paid in cryptocurrency to view videos of a sexual nature that involved dozens of allegedly blackmailed women and girls.

Under the nickname “The Doctor,” Cho allegedly operated one of the biggest chatrooms with as many as 10,000 users, and police are investigating whether he operated others. He is suspected of using private information he secured from workers at local government offices to blackmail victims lured through fake job ads, forcing them to create sexually explicit videos that sometimes involved rape and violence.

Police, who seized about 130 million won (US$105,000) in cash from Cho’s house following his arrest last week, said his customers could have paid as much as 1.5 million won in cryptocurrency to watch the videos.

While police usually don’t release the identities of criminal suspects out of respect for their rights, they made an exception with Cho by revealing his full name and displaying him in front of the media, saying that his alleged crime was particularly heinous.

Police are chasing other chatroom operators, including a Telegram user who used the nickname “GodGod.”

Amid heightened public attention, prosecutors launched an unusually large 21-member taskforce to investigate Cho’s case and other chatrooms. They have as many as 20 days to investigate Cho before indicting him in court, an official at the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office said. Police and prosecution officials said it is not clear how much chatroom operators profited from the videos. Civic activists have speculated the chatrooms could have attracted as many as 260,000 paid users, including overlapping members in different chatrooms.

South Korea for years has struggled to deal with what the government describes as “digital sex crimes,” which aside from the abusive chatrooms also include the spread of intimate photos and videos taken by devices hidden in public spaces and buildings, an issue that triggered massive protests in 2018.

On Monday, Moon called for a thorough investigation and denounced the alleged crimes as a “cruel act destroying a human’s life.”

The Justice Ministry issued an apology over what it called “a years-long failure by the legal system to properly respond to such crimes” and said it would “employ all possible efforts” to track down the operators and users, ensure stern punishment and reclaim any financial gains from the videos.

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