Last winter, when Chung Soo-young saw a man rushing out of the women's restroom at a chain coffee shop in downtown Seoul, the first thing she did was to scan all stalls in search of a hidden camera. Like many other South Korean women, Chung, 26, constantly worries that she could be secretly filmed in private moments. Her fear spiked, she says, when she saw the intruder and "realized I can actually be a victim."
In South Korea, microcameras installed in public bathrooms for surreptitious filming are an everyday concern. Police data show that the number of "illegal filming" crimes sharply increased from 1,353 in 2011 to 6,470 in 2017.
The fear of digital peeping Toms has led women to stuff tiny balls of toilet paper into holes they find in public bathroom stalls or cover the holes with tape. Six months after her bathroom incident, Chung decided to act and put together her own "emergency kit" to thwart molka, or hidden cameras.
She started a crowdfunding project for the kit, and the response was greater than she had expected. More than 600 people bought the kit, which costs about $12 (14,000 Korean won) and includes a tube of silicone sealant to fill up holes, an ice pick to break tiny camera lenses and stickers to patch up holes.
Thinking of her kits as a "stopgap," Chung also started building an archive of illicitly recorded videos and pictures she found online to demonstrate how serious the problem is. In September, during a search, she stumbled on a video of herself from that December day.
Once filmed, molka videos are quickly shared online. With the right search words in Korean, it is not difficult to find pictures and videos of women in bathrooms and changing rooms on file-sharing platforms and social networks such as Tumblr and Twitter. Thumbnails of such videos, tagged with an estimated age of the filmed women or the filming location, are posted with a messenger ID. Anyone can contact the seller, who is often the one who shot the film, and get gigabytes of voyeuristic videos for pennies.
With South Korea's fast Internet speeds and high rate of smartphone ownership, "This kind of distorted sexual culture is becoming the norm," warns professor Lee Sue-jung, a criminal psychologist at Kyonggi University, outside Seoul.
But easy access to advanced technology is just part of the picture. The other part is what Yoon-Kim Ji-young of Konkuk University's Institute of Body and Culture calls "the most backward culture of misogyny" in South Korea.
When the two coincided, "a technologized version of male violence, namely digital sexual violence, emerged," Yoon-Kim says.
South Korean men use and get confirmation of their power by turning everyday spaces into "a scene of pornography," she adds.
Some 70,000 women gathered in central Seoul on Aug. 4, holding picket signs saying, "My life is not your porn." It was the fourth protest this year condemning the prevalence of molka crimes and the largest women-only rally in the country's history. Protesters covered their faces for fear of becoming yet another target of sexual objectification and attack, and they demanded harsher punishment of those who make, share and watch molka videos.
Calls for solutions were constant and desperate even before the rallies, as South Korean women woke up to the seriousness of the problem over the past few years. The government responded by requiring regular sweeps at public bathrooms, establishing support systems for victims, and pledging to handle cases more promptly and strictly.
South Korean law punishes taking and distributing pictures of someone's body that "may cause any sexual stimulus or shame" against the person's will as a special case of sexual crime, with punishment of up to five years in prison or fines as high as $8,900 (10 million Korean won). But many perpetrators — nearly 98 percent of them are male, police data show — get away with the crime. According to a study by the Korean Women Lawyers Association, only 31.5 percent of those accused of committing molka crimes in 2016 were prosecuted. Court records reveal that, of those tried for the offense from 2012 to 2017, only 8.7 percent received a jail sentence.
Critics argue that the punishment is both weak and unfair. When a woman was caught in May for sharing a picture she secretly shot of a nude male model, the court sentenced a "highly unusual" 10-month jail term, Yoon-Kim says.
The investigation of this case, and the subsequent trial, sparked and helped boost the series of four rallies. Organizers and participants argue that law enforcement handled this case with more urgency and rigor because the victim was male and the perpetrator was female.
Gender bias is not merely a suspicion in a country that ranked 118th among 144 nations in the World Economic Forum's 2017 Gender Gap Report. Even as South Korea's human rights standards advanced in the past 20 years, the country "has lacked specialized and concrete developments, efforts and movements for women's rights," says Lee of Kyonggi University.
In August, the verdict in a star politician's sexual abuse case reminded South Koreans how difficult it is for women to speak about their experience of sexual violence and demand justice. The former governor of South Chungcheong Province, Ahn Hee-jung, was acquitted of four counts of rape and multiple counts of sexual harassment brought against him by his former secretary, Kim Ji-eun.
Kim made the revelation — about the most high-profile figure yet in South Korea's #MeToo movement — during a local cable channel's prime-time news show in March. Ahn immediately apologized to Kim and resigned from his position but later argued that he thought the relationship was "consensual."
The Seoul Western District Court's verdict on Aug. 14 said that even though Kim claimed to have said "no" to Ahn's advances, "It is difficult to presume that Ahn could have perceived Kim's expression of refusal."
Kim said in a statement issued immediately after the ruling, "This result could have been predicted when the judge panel spoke of 'chasteness' and 'victim-like behavior' " during the trial.
South Korean women who think twice when going into a public bathroom fear not just the spying lens, but also what's behind it — sharers and watchers online, the growing "distorted sexual culture" and the law enforcement that they cannot trust. For all the daily sweeps at public bathrooms, many women believe the problem requires more — much more — before it is solved.
You won’t find a paywall here. Come as often as you like — we’re not counting. You’ve found a like-minded tribe that cherishes what a free press stands for. If you can spend another couple of minutes making a pledge of as little as $5, you’ll feel like a superhero defending democracy for less than the cost of a month of Netflix.