The notorious 'Baksa' is splashed across the front pages of Korean newspapers. Photo: Asia Times/Andrew Salmon

A 25-year-old man who is the chief suspect in a serial case of blackmail, sexual abuse and sadism that has appalled and angered South Koreans was presented before the public on Wednesday.

“Thank you for stopping my unstoppable life as a devil,” Cho Ju-bi said before television cameras and a crowd that had gathered outside Seoul’s Jongno Police Station.

Cho – reportedly, an orphanage volunteer – stands accused of being a key organizer of an online sex ring in which at least 74 females, including teenagers and children, were blackmailed into violent and abusive activities. His online handle was Baksa, or Doctor.

The victims’ brutal tribulations were filmed and released as pay-per-view pornography on the dark web and accessed via chatrooms. Cryptocurrencies were allegedly used for payment.

The case has shaken the nation, generated petitions that have garnered millions of signatures and earned comments from President Moon Jae-in. Though Cho has not, as yet, been found guilty of the crimes for which he stands accused, police took the unusual decision to nullify his rights to privacy on Tuesday.

Dark acts

According to information Asia Times received from a feminist group following the case, a person using the online name Baksa tweeted his victims, asking them to click into a website where their private identities might have been exposed. That website was in fact a decoy “mirror” site of Twitter. When victims entered their names and passwords, Baksa and his accomplices were able to access personal data, such as telephone numbers and addresses.

With that data acquired, the scheme moved into high gear. The gang threatened to release the personal information online unless the victims sent in nude photographs. Once the gang had access to the photographs, the blackmailing steepened once more. Victims were told that they had to become “slaves” or their nude images would be sent to family and friends.

Some “slaves” were raped and others were pressured into masochistic acts, the feminist group said. According to the feminist group, the youngest victim was 11 years old.

Footage was released into Baksa’s chatroom, part of a network of illicit locations called “Nth Room,” hosted by secure messaging service Telegram. Some 260,000 users paid, using cryptocurrencies, to watch the content, according to local news reports. Baksa’s content was high priced and brutal.

The net closes

Last September, authorities started investigating the group. On February 17, national broadcaster SBS aired an expose. According to the feminist group, Nth Room criminals threatened to kill one of their “slaves” if the broadcaster did not halt its reporting.

On March 16, Cho was arrested. At first, he denied all allegations against him, attempted to injure himself and pretended to be suffering from a Covid-19 infection before confessing that he was, indeed, Baksa, the leading Joongang Daily newspaper reported, citing police sources.

The case has generated an uproar among the public, who have petitioned the presidential office to release the identity of the ringleader and also those of the users of Nth Room. The petitions have garnered more than 5 million signatures. President Moon has weighed in. “Police should take this incident as a serious crime and thoroughly investigate it,” he said Tuesday.

On Monday, SBS defied privacy regulations to name Cho and release a photograph of him – apparently from his high-school yearbook. The police followed suit and released his name on Tuesday. Police said the decision to disclose Cho’s personal information was approved by a specially convened review panel.

According to Korean media reports on Tuesday, Cho had been a volunteer at an orphanage and had edited a student newspaper at a college where he had majored in information and communications.

On Wednesday, the chubby, youthful-looking suspect wearing a sweatshirt, a neck brace and with a bandage on his forehead, was paraded before waiting media before being handed over to the prosecution where he will face multiple charges.

His only comment, apart from that quoted at top, was cryptic. He named three prominent South Koreans in the fields of media and politics, “sincerely apologizing” to them for undisclosed reasons.

He did not, however, apologize to his victims.

Though Cho is the most prominent of the Nth Room service providers, he is far from the only one. Some 124 arrests have been made in the case, with 18 suspects having been formally detained, though the creator of Nth Room is believed to remain at large.

Female fury

Online petitions have won millions of signatures demanding that the identities of not only the Nth Room producers, but also their users, be made public. And activists demanded stern punishment as a future deterrent.

“When this kind of [online]  sexual coercion happens, the judge will usually only apply a monetary penalty or suspended sentence,” Shin Song-yeon-i of the Korea Cyber Sexual Violence Response Center, an NGO, told Asia Times. “If that happens, people will get angry and there is a high possibility of young men imitating these crimes, so there needs to be strong sentencing.”  

However, Shin noted that as some of the victims were minors, Cho could face a sentence of life imprisonment. “I hope the sentence will be applied to the maximum limit of the judge’s discretion,” she said.

The “Telegram Trafficker” affair is the latest in a series of lurid sexual abuse and sexual violence crimes that have riled Korean womanhood and rallied the country’s feminist movement.

While a MeToo movement has been underway, Korean women have been particularly incensed by a nationwide epidemic of spy cameras, which record them in private locations. The footage is then distributed online as voyeur pornography. The response has been serial protests by women and women’s groups.

During National Assembly elections in April, a feminist party will contest seats for the first time.