(ATTN: ADDS details in paras 5-7; RECASTS lead)
By Lee Minji
SEOUL, March 24 (Yonhap) -- A police committee on Tuesday agreed to disclose the identity of a man suspected of blackmailing dozens of victims to perform violent sex acts and selling the content in a mobile group chat room in an incident that has shocked the nation and triggered public fury.
At least 74 people, including 16 underage girls, are known to have been exploited in the case that is widely known as the "Nth room case," in which the prime suspect allegedly lured victims into taking naked photos and later threatened them into more gruesome sex acts.
Cho Ju-bin, 25, who used the nickname "baksa," which means "doctor" or "guru" in Korean, is accused of distributing and streaming the videos in a group chat room on the messaging service Telegram.
Some of the room's up to 10,000 users are suspected of paying Cho as much as 1.5 million won (US$1,195) to view the content in which the suspects were sometimes treated as sex slaves. The payments were reportedly processed via cryptocurrencies.
The committee, which includes four non-police members, such as a psychologist and psychiatrist, agreed to disclose Cho's personal information – including his name, age and photo -- after a thorough review of whether the decision would benefit the public's right to know and prevent recidivism and additional crimes.
"The suspect's crime method of calling some unidentified women 'slaves' and producing and distributing sexually exploitative content is malicious and repetitive ... the crime is grave, considering there were almost 70 victims, including children and teenagers," the police said.
Police plan to have Cho appear in public on Wednesday morning, when he will be transferred to the prosecution for further probe.
Police have so far tracked down 124 people in relation to the case, including Cho and 17 others who have been taken into custody. A user with the nickname GodGod, who is suspected of first creating the chat room, still remains at large.
The case, which became notorious for its extreme brutality, has triggered public fury here as people signed online petitions and shared social media hashtags, demanding powerful punishment against the perpetrators.
More than 2.5 million have signed a public petition on a website run by the presidential office demanding that police disclose Cho's identity and put him in a press photo line.
"If (he) is not a devil, who else can you say is a devil? (He) should stand in a photo line, with his bare face ... Human rights are a luxury for someone who thinks lightly of other people's humiliation," reads the petition that was posted on March 18.
This marks a record number of endorsements for the online petition system run by the presidential office. The presidential office releases an official response for petitions that have received more than 200,000 signatures.
Another 2.1 million have also signed three other petitions demanding the government punish and disclose everyone involved in the digital sex crime. Police estimate members in spinoff group chat rooms at 260,000.
President Moon Jae-in has vowed to take a stern approach in dealing with the sex criminals, as well as combating digital sex crimes, which have evolved in line with developments in technology.
He described the acts of the offenders as "cruel" behavior that destroyed the lives of victims and said he "feels sympathetic" to the "justifiable" public fury over it, according to his office.
A Cheong Wa Dae official later told reporters that Moon wants to reform the "wrong perception" that criminals won't be caught if they hide "in anonymity."
The Ministry of Justice also vowed an all-out fight against digital sex crimes on Tuesday, calling the Nth room case a "disaster" and apologizing for its "lukewarm response" to digital sex crimes.
"We regret that this case is a disaster stemming from a lukewarm response to digital sex crimes. ... We will take all possible measures so that all perpetrators who took part in the cruel crime that destroyed a person's life will be dealt with strict punishment," the ministry said in a press release.
The ministry said it will consult with overseas law enforcement authorities to track down all the perpetrators and redeem the financial gains they have earned through the sex crimes.
It also pledged to launch a pan-government taskforce aimed at uprooting digital crimes and also strengthen victim support to guarantee their "right to be forgotten."
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