Hidden in plain sight: Korea’s sexist response to spy cams in women’s restrooms

Careless injustice is painful for many survivors

Henry Cho

Society and culture | East Asia

10 October 2018

South Korea’s patriarchal society fails to respond to a wave of sexual harassment, contributing to the trauma many women face, writes Henry Cho.

The Korean word ‘molka’ originally meant ‘prank videos’ but is increasingly used to refer to pornographic spy cam pictures or videos. These molkas typically show pictures and videos of people in public places or of women using public restrooms, which are then uploaded online. While there are also male victims of molka, such as the highly publicised Hongdae spy cam incident, most cases have female victims and male offenders.

Offenders usually hide tiny cameras in glasses, belts, lighters, hats and many other everyday objects. In Seoul, workers have even found hidden cameras disguised as smoke detectors and as nails in bathroom stalls. Anyone can easily buy these cameras online for around $300. After recording women using public restrooms, changing rooms and shower rooms, offenders upload these videos onto pornography websites for mass viewing.

Although the distribution of pornography is illegal in South Korea, offenders usually distribute molka through illegal websites with servers overseas. Hence, the South Korean police struggle to track the distributors and shut down the servers. Only after a 10-year-long battle were female victims successful in shutting down Soranet, a website with more than a million active users and notorious for its pornographic molka.

The penalties for distributing pornography are either a year of imprisonment or a fine of one million South Korean won (AU$1,250). Perpetrators of molka can be sentenced up to five years in prison and fined ten million won.

However, these rules are poorly enforced. Only 5 per cent of spy cam suspects receive prison sentences. Most instead pay fines, almost 80 per cent of which are under three million won.

In one instance, an offender confessed to a South Korean media channel that he only received a 50,000 won fine (AU$62). The pornographic videos he uploaded could be bought at 100 won—or just 12 Australian cents—apiece, earning him over 300 million won a year.

The frustrations of South Korean women peaked after the Hongdae spy cam incident. In this case, the police arrested a female suspect only a few days after the incident, in stark contrast to other cases where female victims have struggled with a lack of support or adequate response from the police. The police justified their speedy investigation by claiming that the suspect had violated human rights. Many South Koreans saw this as an inadequate explanation since the same reasoning had not been applied to cases with male offenders.

Following the Hongdae incident, scores of women took to the streets to demand equal justice and fair investigations. The protests were one of the largest women’s protests in South Korean history. Yet, these protests were met with threats of violence. Anonymous threats forced organisers to prepare emergency kits for acid attacks and a protester claimed she was followed by a man to her house, demanding to know why she had attended the protest.

Because of such highly publicised incidents, local governments have begun checking public toilets for hidden cameras. The city of Seoul hired 50 safety marshals to search public restrooms for hidden cameras. A police station in Gwangju placed stickers to cover potential spy cams at 25 public toilets and the Busan Police Department produced an anti-spy cam video. Both the national and local government have pushed for women’s safety.

Nevertheless, illegal pornography websites with molka videos still exist. President Moon Jae-in, who styled himself as a “feminist president” when he ran for office, says that actions need to be taken, but lacks any specific solutions. Though the presidential office and the Democratic Party, the ruling party of South Korea, have proposed to regulate hidden cameras and impose stronger penalties, they have only made small changes so far and are dithering on how to tackle the wider issue at hand.

The government needs to criminalise both the filming and watching of molka and strongly punish violators of these laws. More importantly, the police need to be educated on how to respectfully approach victims of sexual harassment without contributing to their trauma. Many female victims experience victim-blaming and harassment from the police, with some reports of victims of molka committing suicide following a poor police response.

Such careless injustice is painful for many survivors, who live with the knowledge that videos of them circulate online with the potential to affect their everyday life and relationships. In a particularly disgusting example, the molka of some those who have suicided are marketed as posthumous work and redistributed. This highlights not only the need for immediate action but a change in attitudes towards women in South Korea.

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