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

Last year, the so-called Burning Sun scandal, involving a series of sex crimes allegedly committed by K-pop stars, became a burning issue in South Korea. Some Korean singers had reportedly raped women, and taken photos of women’s naked bodies while having sex. They shared those photos with their friends by using a smartphone messaging app. The perpetrators, however, claimed innocence, incensing the public.

A year after that scandal, another sex crime shocked South Koreans. This time, 260,000 men have been linked to the sexual abuse of 74 women, including teenagers.

Last week, prosecutors launched an investigation into a chatroom called “the Nth Room.” Perpetrators allegedly threatened victims into certain sexual activities, including cruel ones, which they viewed online. Moreover, the perpetrators shared videos and photos of victims’ naked bodies by using Telegram, a secure messaging service.

The police arrested a 25-year-old man who ran chatrooms to share videos of victims. He had allegedly let other men join the chatrooms to share pornography in return for cryptocurrency payment.

Frustrated by this case, more than 2 million people signed a petition to urge the government to reveal the identity of whoever was responsible for the Nth Room. This week, police revealed revealed the man’s identity. But even before the Nth Room case, South Koreans had often complained about the lenient punishments meted out for sex criminals.

South Koreans started to call for harsher punishments for sex-crime offenders in 2008 when Cho Doo-soon, then 57, brutally raped an eight-year-old girl. The young survivor’s abdomen and pelvis were severely injured. The court initially sentenced the rapist to 15 years’ imprisonment. An appeal court, however, reduced the term to 12 years, as he claimed he was drunk when he raped the girl.

Article 10 Section 2 of the Criminal Act rules that a court can reduce sentences when mentally impaired men committed crimes. As the Criminal Act sees a drunk man as a mentally impaired person, Cho’s sentence was reduced on appeal. Citizens were outraged by the subsequent lenient punishment for the rapist. Many also said Article 10 Section 2 had to be scrapped.

Disagreeing with the appeal court’s ruling, hundreds of thousands of citizens called for a retrial of Cho’s crime. However, a government official said a retrial could be conducted only when the court had wrongly convicted a defendant or handed down an overly harsh sentence. Many found this unsatisfactory, noting that with such a lenient sentence, the rapist could commit another crime after his release.

Even as Koreans complained about Cho’s lenient punishment, spy-camera crimes have been thriving for several years. Offenders secretly set up cameras in public places, including toilets, to capture photos of women’s bodies. Then the offenders distribute the photos on the Internet. Some criminals have even shot videos of people having sex in motel rooms, sharing them on pornography websites. Most victims are unaware of their privacy having been violated until the photos or videos are circulated online.

As the spy-camera crimes became more serious, police announced they were taking action. However, such crimes have shown no sign of falling off, again blamed on lenient punishments for convicted offenders. Article 14 Section 2 of the Act on Special Cases Concerning the Punishment, Etc, of Sex Crimes rules that those who commit sex crimes by way of electronic devices or cameras will be fined no more than 30 million won (roughly US$24,400) or imprisoned up to five years.

When mainstream media reported about the Nth Room case, South Korean President Moon Jae-in also expressed anger. He ordered prosecutors to investigate the case thoroughly. Min Gap-ryong, commissioner general of the Korean National Police Agency, vowed that the police would arrest everyone involved in the case. He added that his agency would take measures on the prevention of sex crimes across Korea.

But many South Koreans are dissatisfied with the Criminal Act because of the light punishment it mandates for sex crimes. Many say the government has failed to take the problem seriously even after Cho Doo-soon’s crime stirred public fury. Some suggest that harsh punishment, such as the death penalty or chemical castration, is needed to tackle sex crimes. In any case, the government needs to revise the laws promptly laws to impose heavier punishment for all kinds of sex crimes.

Da-Sol Goh is a translator in Seoul. She is a graduate of Myongji University in Seoul, where she studied law and English literature. As a translator, she mainly handles foreign articles from anglophone countries dealing with politics and international issues.