Spycam epidemic wrecks women’s lives in South Korea


Lee Yu-jung, 26, a young South Korean doctor with a promising future was set to marry her fiancé in September of last year when video footage of her undressing in the changing room of the hospital where she works was discovered by the police.

She was devastated to learn that she has been secretly recorded by a fellow doctor.

After a bout with depression where she turned to alcohol and anti-depressants, Lee committed suicide.

As digital sex crimes rise worldwide, South Korea has become the global epicentre of spycam – the use of tiny, hidden cameras to film victims naked, urinating or mid-sex.

Most victims are women – rights groups say the scandal is indicative of wider sexism in society – and Lee’s case has spotlighted the mental toll it can take on its victims, along with the leniency of punishments meted out to many men.

In November 2019, the man who secretly filmed Lee was sentenced to 10 months in jail.

Lee’s father believes the man, also a pathologist, got off lightly. Under the law, he could face up to five years in jail.

“I want the court to look at illegal filming as a crime that is as severe as sexual assault. There is a big gap now,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation at his home in a rural town near the South Korean port city of Busan.

Women’s rights campaigners also want tougher penalties, saying voyeurs should not be let off lightly just because they stop short of an actual physical assault.

The mental fallout is just as devastating, they say.

Nearly one in four women who have been harassed or secretly filmed have thought about suicide, according to an October survey of 2,000 victims by the Korean Women’s Development Institute, a government think tank.

Around the world, sexual predators have capitalised on technology to target women, from “revenge porn” – releasing naked pictures of former partners – to “upskirting”, using phones to look up women’s skirts.

The problem is especially acute in tech-savvy South Korea, where thousands of women have taken to the streets in protest.

Official figures showed there were about 6,000 cases of the so-called spycam porn in 2018 and about 6,500 the year before.

Culprits typically film in public places, changing rooms or toilets, or in hotels, then sell the footage to porn sites.

A South Korean porn website that attracted more than a million users and hosted thousands of spycam videos thrived for years until it was shut down in 2016 after activist complaints.

A co-founder was jailed last year.

Footage can fetch up to 100,000 won (US$90), with top earners netting more than 100 million won a month, local media say.

The government has introduced a slew of counter measures: longer jail terms, daily checks in public toilets and a taskforce to help victims kill off the unwanted online videos.

But the problem is unabated.

South Korea’s Ministry of Gender Equality and Family said offenders must get punishments that match the severity of the offence, and that the country’s highest court is drafting new sentencing guidelines on digital sex crimes.

It said raising awareness about women’s rights is also key.

“In order to eliminate digital sex crimes, the wrong idea that sexually objectifies a woman’s body must be changed first,” the ministry said in comments to the Thomson Reuters Foundation. (Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation)