Son Jong-woo is the creator of “Welcome to Video”, once the world’s largest known child pornography website. In 2015, when he was 19, he started the website in the dark web, warning its members, “Do not upload adult porn”. Over the next three years, the site would balloon to more than 1 million downloads worldwide, trading in cryptocurrency and trafficking videos featuring the sexual assault, including rape, of minors. One of the site’s most popular searches was for “2-year-olds”. By the time Son was arrested and the website shut down in 2018, the 32-nation investigation had caught more than 300 suspects (the majority men from South Korea) and rescued at least 23 children in the United States, Britain and Spain.
On Monday, Son was released after spending just 18 months in prison.
The sentence seems unbelievably short. The site was first uncovered during an investigation into Matthew Falder, a geophysicist who was sentenced to 25 years in Britain for encouraging rape and sharing abusive videos of minors, among numerous other charges. In the United States, several convicted of using the site have been sentenced to nearly a decade in prison.
Son’s sentence is at the heart of the current outrage engulfing South Korea, after a court recently refused the U.S. request to extradite Son. For many Koreans, the prospect of his extradition to the United States meant hope for proper justice — something they no longer trust the South Korean courts to give, especially in digital sex crimes, where lenient sentencing is widespread.
If Son had been extradited to the United States, he could have faced up to two decades in prison on money-laundering charges alone. But the Seoul High Court, which had held Son in custody for the extradition deliberations after his sentence formally ended in April, rejected the U.S. 2019 request, saying, “the extradition could hamper South Korea’s investigation into sexually exploitative content.… The decision should not be interpreted as exonerating him”.
In response, one person claimed in a tweet: “I regret having children in this country”. It wouldn’t be surprising if many Korean women felt the same.
The past few years have seen a number of digital sex-crime scandals gain attention in South Korea. Each seemed to promise a new turning point. That’s what it seemed like when Soranet, a hub of non-consensual and abusive videos, was shut down in 2016. It felt like change was coming in 2018, when historic numbers of women protested against “spycam” videos. It would happen anytime now, the thinking went last year, when prominent K-pop stars were arrested for recording and sharing “spycam” videos of women.
Then, earlier this year, the “Nth Rooms” were exposed, revealing an unknown scale of networks on Telegram, the encrypted messaging app, where men blackmailed and even enslaved young women to produce sexually exploitative videos. More than 400 suspects were arrested, including key administrators who are currently investigated by prosecutors.
It’s too simplistic to say that nothing has improved. Public sensitivity against these crimes has risen with each case, including awareness about the victims, who are continuously traumatized by the replication and distribution of the humiliating images on the Internet. And debates about digital sex crimes are slowly translating into policy changes. In recent years, revisions to the law have strengthened penalties and expanded the scope of what counts as a crime.
But law enforcement in South Korea is still woefully behind. Under Korean law, perpetrators can receive up to a life sentence for producing content featuring children. In reality, the average sentence was less than two and a half years in 2017, according to the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family. Out of more than 200 South Korean suspects arrested in relation to Son’s website, only 43 were prosecuted and penalized. The overwhelming majority were let off with fines averaging 3 million won (less than $2,000).
In 2018, part of the rationale for Son’s sentence was that he was still young, showed remorse, and was a first-time offender. This lenience would often be applied to other perpetrators. One anonymous user wrote on social media, “The investigator told me this could happen to anyone. If you’re a South Korean man, you watch porn. But since Interpol is requesting assistance, they’re catching people like rats. So he told me, just consider yourself unlucky this time”.
The people still waiting for justice are the victims of Son’s website, who were blackmailed, sexually assaulted and even urinated on. “I can’t go outside because I’m afraid someone will recognize me”, an anonymous Korean victim told SBS. “You can’t put this pain into words — only people who’ve been through this will know”.
Investigations against Son aren’t over: In South Korea, he can still be tried for money laundering. The United States (and other countries) still have other grounds to request an extradition. Yet the story goes far beyond Son and his now-defunct website. The digital sex crime scandals that have left South Korea reeling in the past few years are just the ones that have been exposed. Nobody knows how many more exist in the dark. But we do know South Korea’s justice system is not ready to handle them.
Haeryun Kang is a freelance journalist and the creative director at the media incubator videocusIN.