By Kang Yoon-seung
SEOUL, Oct. 19 (Yonhap) -- South Korean celebrity Goo Ha-ra, a former member of popular K-pop girl group Kara, recently was back in the headlines, not for her new songs but because of a scandalous story that she and her boyfriend physically attacked each other.
The case entered a new phase when, during a police investigation, Goo claimed that her partner surnamed Choi threatened to leak intimate private videos of the two. Local law enforcement officers are checking a mobile phone and USB flash drive belonging to Choi to find out whether he actually threatened to spread the videos that are commonly referred to as revenge pornography.
While the investigation is in progress, the incident stirred a debate in South Korea over whether the country is making sufficient efforts to protect victims and punish blackmailers who are taking advantage of women with videos that are often taken with consent during a relationship.
Revenge pornography, although the usage of the term is also debated, as it may carry a misogynist perspective, refers to sexually explicit videos or images taken with or without consent, which are later posted online, mostly by men to shame or blackmail their partners after a breakup.
In response to Goo's claim, more than 230,000 people signed a petition on the website of the presidential office, urging the government to take tougher measures to combat the spread of private videos online.
"Victims are unable to live normal lives due to tiresome and derogatory remarks that they should have been careful," the petition reads.
The petition drive illustrated that many South Korean women are concerned over the lack of legal safeguards or policies that can protect them in case their most private videos end up online.
South Korea's Act on Special Cases Concerning the Punishment, Etc, of Sexual Crimes does stipulate that a person who "distributes, sells, leases, provides, or openly exhibits" images of another person's "body" that "may cause any sexual stimulus or shame" of the victim may be imprisoned for not more than three years or fined an amount not exceeding 5 million won (US$4,431).
Women, however, claim that violators mostly get away with their actions by taking advantage of loopholes in the law, while victims suffer from the fallouts.
For example, earlier this month, a local district court slapped a three-year prison term on a man who posted sexual videos and images of his ex-wife on the Internet and later threatened to upload more. But in a similar case, South Korea's Supreme Court ruled that taking photos of revenge pornography while they are being played on a computer and then sending the photos to others cannot be punished as a sexual offense.
The ruling came as existing laws only ban the taking of "photos of another person's body." It did not acknowledge taking photos of a screen playing videos showing a person's body as an act punishable under the law for sex criminals.
Experts stress that this is not the only loophole in the system that is being exploited.
Criminal psychology professor Lee Soo-jung of Kyonggi University points out that there are many cases where males who post revenge pornography materials online do not get charged with sexual abuse but are penalized for other offenses that come with weaker legal consequences.
Lee said the law often fails to properly protect victims as in some cases excessive legal red tape stands in the way of defendants receiving heavy punishments.
"When it comes to legal disputes surrounding such materials, the issue tends to lie on whether they were filmed and uploaded with the consent of the victims," Lee told Yonhap News Agency.
"The law for punishment of sexual crimes can be applied if the materials were taken secretly, and if not, offenders get punished under the communication law for spreading pornography, and that tends to come with much weaker punishments," Lee said.
The scholar said despite the core issue of revenge porn cases being fundamentally about sexual abuse against women, the law does not take such factors into consideration.
The professor said heavier punishments are needed to pave the way for investigators to promptly arrest suspects and seize incriminating materials. At present, police cannot detain a person for a crime that only carries a fine or, at most, a suspended jail sentence.
"The consequences of crimes involving revenge pornography, which invariably leads to the mental distress of victims, should not be viewed as being light and allow the offender to avoid being arrested," she said.
Along with the law to punish those uploading such materials, women also feel marginalized when it comes to the most important follow-up measure: deleting videos and photos from the Internet.
The Korean Cyber Sexual Violence Response Center (KCSVRC), a local activist group providing advice to victims, claims once a video is online, there's no way to completely remove it.
"Even organizations with power, such as the police or the Korea Communications Commission, can only request (websites) to remove such materials," the KCSVRC told Yonhap News Agency. "Those saved on someone's hard drive, USB flash drive, or cloud accounts cannot be tracked or deleted."
"As long as the government does not implement regulations on platforms that circulate victims' materials, our help will always be incomplete," the organization added.
The government recently announced that it will "exercise the right to indemnity" and have offenders pay for the costs of removing videos online.
The KCSVRC, however, said it is correct to assume that victims can only "try" to delete the videos.
Accordingly, rather than only asking violators to pay for the efforts to delete them, the KCSVRC said there should be pre-emptive measures to prevent such materials from being uploaded in the first place through advanced filtering systems.
"File-sharing websites have been claiming that it is impossible to sort out all pornography materials, but it is actually possible when applying the right filtering program," the organization said. "Even if some manage to penetrate the filter, the operators can remove them nearly completely if they have one staff member working eight hours a day."
"As long as there are no rules to punish those who circulate, upload and consume the abusive materials, the efforts (to exercise the right to indemnity) will only end in vain," the KCSVRC said.
Experts of gender studies, meanwhile, claim that the public's perspective on the materials should change as well.
To start with, the term "revenge porn" should be avoided, just as the global trend of replacing "child pornography" with "child abuse images."
Yun-Kim Jiyeong, a professor at Konkuk University's Institute of Body & Culture, claimed that the term is used to humiliate victims based on the social convention where women are sexually commercialized.
"Such videos should be referred to as illegal-blackmail videos. They not only can end a person's social life but can actually cause them to take extreme measures, like committing suicide," Yun-Kim added.
Yun-Kim also urged victims to remain calm and not blame themselves.
"When such videos are leaked, some victims think they have lost their value as women. That is the perspective of men," Yun-Kim said. "It is their human rights that are violated."
The KCSVRC also said the first thing for victims seeking help is not to blame themselves.
The professor added South Korea needs to drop the double standard where females are shamed but those who filmed the explicit videos are not.
"Some males think they can end the lives of any women as long as they have the videos. We need to show them that such actions are never tolerated in this society. Even first-time offenders should receive a jail term, instead of fines or a suspended term," Yun-Kim said.
If the public's perception on sexual offenses doesn't change, a few improvements in the system will not be enough to effectively curb potential threats and keep women safe, she said.
"Violators want to make victims afraid of them. The last bastion of criminals is the social norm that applies different judgments to the two genders."
(LEAD) Gov't to expand support for small merchants ahead of holiday
Gov't to announce blueprint on nuke plant decommissioning in March
Wanna One's Kang Daniel preparing for solo debut in April
(3rd LD) S. Korea's military condemns Japanese warplane's 'provocative' close-range flight
More ways to savor BTS: books, games, movies
More ways to savor BTS: books, games, movies
N. Korea's envoy replaced ahead of 2nd Trump-Kim summit: source
Japanese plane flies near S. Korean warship again: military
U.N. grants sanctions exemptions for humanitarian aid to N. Korea
(2nd LD) Pompeo eyes 'good marker' with N. Korea next month