“I will release the photos of slaves from No.1 to No.4.” This was the message one user sent others in a chat room. Starting with this comment, photos and videos of content that sexually exploited women were uploaded in the chat room. It is hard to believe, but at least 300 people were involved in one chat room, and hundreds of photos and videos were shared in the chat room. The photos and videos from those chat rooms have been leaked to the outside world and have spread to even more people. Considering the current estimate of members involved in this situation, it is expected that there will be more than those 260,000 people involved in those sexually exploits. These types of chat rooms are called “Nth rooms”.
Invitation to an Nth room
To understand the situation better, it is important to know exactly what a Nth room chats are. As mentioned above, a Nth room is a chat room that shares photos and videos of women or girls who were forced into sexual slavery through the Telegram Messenger. Early Nth rooms started appearing in February 2019 and at the time, there were approximately eight Telegram chat rooms, each of which shared illegal pornographic images of different female victims. Permission to enter these early Nth rooms required access to a secret Telegram room called the ‘Gotham Room’ and a cash payment to the 'manager’ of the room. After a Nth room manager posted personal information about a woman, referred to as a ‘slave’, the manager then posted his messenger ID in the Telegram room and prompted ‘customers’ willing pay the required fee to join the Nth chat room featuring the manager’s ID. After making the payment, the manager provided a link to his Nth room. Between 300 to 700 users join the Nth room. Users are referred to as ‘customers’, but, at the same time, they are ‘observers’ in Nth rooms. These Nth rooms are copies of Telegram chat rooms, and they allow the pictures and videos to be downloaded and spread. This downloading and spreading was the beginning of massive sextortion criminal operations.
The rapid spread and sharing of the illegal pornographic images are possible because Nth rooms are created in Telegram. Telegram is a messenger program in which conversations posted by users automatically disappear within a few minutes after being posted. In other words, the server for Telegram does not store messages. It only ensures they are passed. Also, it is difficult to regulate Telegram in Korea because its server is based overseas. Using the features of Telegram, Nth rooms have become active spaces and avoid surveillance easily. Therefore, one particular Nth room is only vaguely known on Websites such as Ilbe and DC galleries where users are mostly males. In addition, the users of such Telegram chat rooms used bitcoin to enter the room. This was because bitcoin was a cryptocurrency that can elude the tracking of the police. However, it was brought to public attention after an article was published in The Hankyoreh in November 2019. This story sparked the SBS show <Curious Stories Y> to investigate the issue more deeply. The public also started to realize the seriousness of sextortion crimes. Since then, there has been growing calls for punishment of users of Nth rooms.
Uncontrollable Spread of Sadistic Sexual Exploitation
According to a report by <Curious Stories Y>, most victims of Nth rooms are minors, one as young as a 13-year-old female. The creators of Nth rooms have made these young women slaves controlled by social media. The first Nth room creator goes under the ID ‘GodGod’, and ‘GodGod’ targets users whose accounts are deemed ‘accounts for wrongdoing’ on Twitter. These types of accounts include accounts of users who post nude photos of themselves without releasing their personal information on Twitter. 'GodGod' approached those account users and tricked them into believing their personal information had been leaked. With this lie, ‘GodGod’ sent them a link to an unidentified website. After clicking the link, the personal information users agreed to release to Twitter when signing up for an account was accessible to ‘GodGod’. ‘GodGod’ then threatened to arrest them by impersonating a police officer. ‘GodGod’ told users that although he had records of their pornographic behavior, he would not arrest them if they agreed to work as his ‘slaves’. Victims of this crime feared of being arrested, so they agreed to do as he demanded. At first, ‘GodGod’ demanded relatively simple things from the victims such as naked photos of their bodies. However, his demands became more severe and he demanded sadistic sexual imagery such as sexual torture. Victims who refused ‘GodGod’’s demands were told their photos would be sent to their acquaintances, which incapacitated the victims and made them even more obedient. The vicious cycle continued, and the victims continued to live in fear of a photos leak. Some of them even tried to commit suicide.
Victims’ pornographic images were constantly being shared among users in Nth rooms. Users were already members of Telegram chat rooms, and to enter Nth room, only members of Telegram chat rooms were given the access link to share to with others. There was also a 'shelter chat room' that was created in case Telegram chat rooms were exposed.1) According to the Women’s party, approximately 260,000 users are members of various Nth rooms. Corresponding to the increasing in Nth rooms is the increase in the number of informants exposing the illegal behavior in those Nth rooms.2) This shows that secondary leak of the illegal pornographies from the original Nth room makes it difficult to punish all of the assailants of this crime. One Nth room user, called ‘Baksa’ has since created his own pornographic supply shop: ‘Baksa Room’. He accepted members to his chat room only after receiving a joining fee, and that fee was about one million won (about eight hundred dollars). He was active in several chat rooms in the past, and those chat rooms included Nth rooms. However, his chat room has become more systemic and sadistic than original Nth rooms. One clear example is Baksa’s sharing of erotic stories about ‘slaves’.
Also, ‘Baksa’ made a chat room to share snuff films. He forced victims to do self-injury and perform incestuous sex. The photos and videos of these scenes were circulated in his new Nth chat room. ‘Baksa’ has committed more serious sexual exploitation than ‘GodGod’. One evidence of this comes from an informant who once participated in a Nth chat room. The informant said, “In the Nth room, I saw videos of extreme cruelty and brutality such as victims carving letters into their genitals with knives”.3) Victims of Nth chat rooms are terrified and fear being raped by strangers while also fearing the leak of their private information. Some users of Nth rooms have been sent victims’ addresses and names, and have threatened victims with group rape. Nth room users have tracked down victims, have visited victims’ homes in person, and used scare tactics to frighten them with proof that they know of their pornographic behavior. The victims, however, had no choice but to engage in such behavior because they feared being arrested by the police. Some have tried to go into hiding on social media.4) Anxiety and fear are heavy burdens that the victims have to endure daily from Nth chat room crimes.
Relationships with Nth rooms
Nth room sexual exploitation of females is not the first sexual crimes females suffered in online. One of the online sexual crime that shocked Korean society was the Sora net case. Sora net was an illegal online porn site that shared a server overseas. Much of the materials, which were shared, were sex crimes. In April 2016, the Dutch server for Sora net was shut down. Nevertheless, the sexual crimes did not stop appearing on the Internet. In 2017, the operator of the porn site "OO," the next largest one after Sora net and the operator of the porn site AVSNOOP, which had 1.21 million members, were arrested. With the big illegal porn sites being closed, users of those sites moved to Telegram, a messenger, based in overseas that has tight information security. One male, referred to as watcher, who goes by the Telegram nickname which is Watchman, openly said he would continue sexual exploitation porn sites that were established on Sora net. He then opened a blog, which promoted a secret chat room to the Telegram. The secret chat room is called Gotham, and it is the medium through which users can enter a Nth chat room.5) Simultaneously with the size of Nth rooms growing, the number of whistleblowers is increasing. People are becoming more and more aware of their existence. Under these circumstances, a petition was posted on the Cheong Wa Dae national petition board on November 29, 2019 to start discussions on how to resolve the problem. The petition has yet to be answered. In the following year, on January 2, 2020, a new petition was uploaded. There have been 40 petitions uploaded to the petition board and there has also been a petition directly to the National Assembly of the Republic of Korea. A committee was established on February 11 and is currently looking into the matter. In addition to petitioning the state agency, people made a donation to hold a demonstration at Hyehwa Station with the idea of preventing violent punishment for users of Nth rooms. Because Nth room problems are becoming more and more known, people are also taking more interest in new digital sex crimes and demanding punishment for the criminals. However, it is still doubtful that the offenders will get a proper punishment.
Korean law is known to have light penalties for digital sex crimes. There were four operators of the Sora net, one of whom voluntarily returned Korea after being found by Interpol, but the other three have eluded police. The Korean courts sentenced the person to four years in prison. The short prison term was met with much controversy. The reason behind the light punishment for online sex crimes is due to the uniqueness of the Internet itself. The Internet makes it difficult to completely delete uploaded materials and personal information once it has been posted. With just one click, the materials could be shared with thousands of others. Because of these features, victims make extreme choices. Very few people report themselves as victims because they are afraid of others finding out about the crimes. In fact, out of 1,702 cases of illegal filming and distribution in 2018, only 215 criminals were sentenced to prison terms. This shows a big difference with the punishments in foreign nations. A district court sentenced a school teacher to 240 months in prison and barred the person from parole for 15 years. The teacher, as a prank, recorded students in the school dressing room. Given the fact that the victims of Nth rooms include both adults and young children, higher and stronger punishment is necessary. On February 9, 60 Nth room operators and disseminators of porn were arrested, and as of February 21, the Committee of Digital Sexual Crime said they were taking the matter seriously. It blocked access to 133 Telegram messenger groups related to the Nth rooms.6) However, on February 21, no punishment for Nth room users and operators had been announced. Many predict that there will be light penalties like previous digital sex crimes. On March 23, Baksa has been arrested. As one of the main offenders has been arrested, people are waiting for the punishments. And president Moon mentioned that all the members of the Nth room chats should be investigated.7) With the seriousness of the situation, many are demanding proper punishment. Illegal trade of sexually exploited images on the Internet continue, mainly on Twitter. Strong punishment is considered necessary, as there are still posts about the Telegram.
For a safer environment for women
Many people around the world are now working hard to protect women's human rights. In particular, they are working to protect females from unfair treatments. Much effort is being made in Korean society to protect women's human rights in everyday life. However, women in Korea are still treated as sexual objects on the Internet. Now is the time to debate the problems and people to know that this is not a simple matter. Resolutions aimed at resolving underlying problems are needed to prevent continuing and similar crimes.
7) Lee Seunggil, “President Moon “‘Nth Room’ Case, Brutal Action... Investigation of All Members Are Needed””, Mydaily, March 23, 2020
Kim Han Yujin / Woman Section Editor
Lee Hwang Hayoung / Woman Section Editor