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  • Writer's pictureDurham Pro Bono Blog

[Op-Ed] That “Korean porn” you just watched might’ve been what killed someone

Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the individual author. All rights are reserved to the original authors of the materials consulted, which are identified in the footnotes below.



Every summer, I head back home to South Korea which involves an excruciating twelve-hour flight from Heathrow to Seoul accompanied by a somewhat authentic Korean food option British Airways has to offer on board. But the true ‘I must be back home’ moment isn’t the cliché chattering of a middle aged couple discussing how they’ll send their child to a top university nor the amazement of fellow passengers in awe of how fast Incheon Airport brought their luggage out at baggage claim.

It’s when I step into a stall in the airport bathroom and face the sign on the door that reads:


Illegal filming is a criminal offence under the Act on Special Cases Concerning The Punishment of Sexual Crimes and etc. punishable with up to maximum five years of imprisonment or a fine of ₩10,000,000 (roughly £6,400).[1]

Quite different from the typical polite notices one will find in British loos subtly requesting proper disposals of sanitary products, this rather threatening message unfortunately reflects the state that Korea has come to. From tiny cameras drilled into bathroom door knobs [2] to pens with built in hidden cameras “accidently” left in motel bedrooms,[3] these so called ‘spy cams’ are literally everywhere and their by-product will often end up on a foreign porn site under the category: Korean.


Now before proceeding any further, one must note that pornography is illegal in Korea. The production and dissemination of ‘obscene content’ is regulated under Article 44-7 of the Act on Promotion of Information and Communications Network Utilization and Information Protection, etc. which outlines the prohibition on circulation of unlawful information.

Subsection (1)1 of the Act defines ‘unlawful information’ to include ‘Information with obscene content distributed, sold, rented, or displayed openly in the form of code, words, sound, images, or motion pictures’.[4]


Although there isn’t a precise statutory definition for ‘obscene content’ available at the moment, we can attempt to rely on the Supreme Court’s 2008 interpretation [5] which defined ‘obscene content’ as sexually explicit material that goes beyond being merely lewd and distasteful by displaying sexual body parts or conduct to an extent that infringes individuals’ rights to protection of their human dignity, produced solely for the purposes of fulfilling sexual desires without pursuance of any further constructive values. Again, it’s a very vague explanation infused with controversial Confucian moral standards but the fact that this Act is what serves as the grounds for an effective ban on all pornographic material [6] helps understand the real-life application of the law.


The obvious question to then be raised is, how does ‘Korean porn’ still exist?

And the only sensible answer is that it actually doesn’t. Whatever people consider as ‘Korean porn’ are illegally filmed materials, far from consented works of pornography, that have been freely circulated under the Korean government’s utter lack of willingness to protect their citizens, condoned and fuelled by the criminal justice system which more often than not discharges offenders without imprisonment

‘because it was their first time and they said they’re sorry’.[7]

This is a nation where the police initially concluded they ‘had no choice but to give up’ on investigations tracking down the owners of Soranet – a then leading Korean adult website that actively encouraged its users to create and upload illegally filmed materials including paedophilic content – because they had their server overseas.[8]

I understand that in some cases it may inevitably be that the current law simply cannot keep up with the fast paced changes of the society, which puts the court in a difficult place of juxtaposition between having to uphold the rule of law whilst trying to take into account what’s considered correct in the newly defined societal standards. However, when the judge himself is the one insisting on viewing the illegally filmed sex tape for the purposes of “reviewing evidence” in front of the victim when both parties already agreed that the specific content of said “evidence” wasn’t even a contentious point of dispute anymore,[9] it’s hard to say that the court has but lost its hard fought battle in seeking justice to preserving sacred legal principles.


Figures show that more than half of the victims of illegally filmed materials feel suicidal, with many of them actually taking their own lives.[10] Nonetheless in such a sexually repressed society with the culture of slut shaming and victim blaming still very much relevant, it’s impractical to assume that everyone will readily reach out for support when their reputation’s at stake which is why the majority of these deaths are often brushed off as


‘just another suicide’.

If it was the inescapable anonymity behind these figures that virtually immunized the society from feeling guilty in blatantly turning a blind eye to these victims, then at least the recent death of Goo Hara, a famous K-pop star, should serve as an urgent wake-up call. After being blackmailed by her ex-boyfriend Choi Jong Bum that he’d release a sex tape taken without her consent to the media, Hara Koo started a still on-going legal battle.


It was held in the initial ruling that Choi was not guilty on the grounds that the absence of Goo’s explicit objection when she realised she was being filmed at the time equated to an implicit consent and therefore she couldn’t complain on what she consented to.[11] Even having set aside this absurd conceptualisation of consent as another issue, this judgement by Justice Oh Duk Shik is clearly flawed in its technicality in that it somehow takes the “consent” element within the offence of illegal filming as a justifiable defence to reduce charges for a completely different offence which was apparent blackmailing. The sickening concoction of this antediluvian approach on consent in sexual offences combined with a strictly offender-centred reasoning is what pushes women off the cliff – despite her subsequent efforts to stay strong, Goo Hara was found dead at her place last week.[12]


Since then, there’s been a public outrage calling for immediate amendments to the current sentencing regulations along with demands to impeach Justice Oh. Whether or not there will be substantial changes in the upcoming appeal trials and how much Goo’s death will affect it is still up in the air, but hopefully at the end of this chaos in which we had to painfully witness ‘Goo Hara Sex Tape’ emerge to the top of search engines while she was literally on her knees begging for help, we won’t need to teach people that ‘my life is not your porn’[13] anymore.


Jaewon Hwang (Asia)



SOURCES


[1] see cover photo – Jaewon Hwang, ‘sign in a train station bathroom’, taken on 3 July 2019


[2] Josh Gabbatiss: Spy cam porn fears lead to daily public toilet inspections in Seoul (Independent, 2 September 2018) <https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/spy-cam-porn-hidden-camera-checks-seoul-south-korea-authorities-a8519726.html> accessed 5 December 2019


[3] Sophie Jeong and James Griffiths: ‘Hundreds of motel guests were secretly filmed and live-streamed online’ (CNN, 21 March 2019) <https://edition.cnn.com/2019/03/20/asia/south-korea-hotel-spy-cam-intl/index.html> accessed 5 December 2019


[4]정보통신망이용촉진및정보보호등에관한법률위반(음란물유포등); English version available to read at: <http://www.law.go.kr/lsInfoP.do?lsiSeq=176679&chrClsCd=010203&urlMode=engLsInfoR&viewCls=engLsInfoR#0000> accessed 5 December 2019



[6] distinction to be drawn with erotic adult films which don’t explicitly display entire sexual organs


[7]Se Eun Gong, Michael Sullivan: South Korean Women Fight Back Against Spy Cams In Public Bathrooms (NPR, 19 October 2018) <https://www.npr.org/2018/10/19/648720360/south-korean-women-fight-back-against-spy-cams-in-public-bathrooms?t=1575618510638> accessed 5 December 2019


[8] South Korea porn: Co-founder of the Soranet site jailed (BBC, 9 January 2019) <https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-46810775> accessed 5 December 2019


[9] Haeryun Kang: A K-pop star’s death is the latest reminder of how Korea’s justice system fails women (Washington Post, 27 November 2019) https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/11/27/k-pop-stars-death-is-latest-reminder-how-koreas-justice-system-fails-women/> accessed 5 December 2019


[10] 이혜리, 임주형: [나는 너의 야동이 아니다] 몰카 영상 뿌려진 뒤 시작된 지옥…피해자 10명 중 1명 극단 선택 시도 (Seoul News, 6 January 2019) <https://www.seoul.co.kr/news/newsView.php?id=20190107002002#csidx0ac197c2f769f758eee616b167758e4> accessed 5 December 2019


[11] 박태인: 구하라 남긴 2시간 증언···'불법촬영' 최종범 항소심 계속된다 (Joongang Daily, 25 November 2019) <https://news.joins.com/article/23640951> accessed 5 December 2019


[12] Min Joo Kim, Simon Denyer: K-pop singer Goo Hara found dead, highlighting pressures on female stars (Washington Post, 24 November 2019) <https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia-pacific/k-pop-singer-goo-hara-found-dead-highlighting-pressures-on-female-stars/2019/11/24/bd3e1f5e-0ed2-11ea-924c-b34d09bbc948_story.html> accessed 5 December 2019


[13] a phrase that went viral after a protestor was seen holding up a sign saying ‘my life is not your porn’ at a rally demanding stricter regulations on illegally filmed materials

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