Credit: Shutterstock

Listen to this article:

South Korea’s spy cam crisis, also known as the Molka crisis, persists despite the country’s democratization. Daily illegal spy cameras are placed and found throughout public spaces. These cams disproportionately target women and film their most intimate moments without consent. 

The government of South Korea has responded to the issue by implementing laws and policies to deter and penalize offenders. However, failure to address underlying cultural issues allows the crisis to endure. The spy cam crisis is a product of deep-rooted sexism, and without a comprehensive government response, women will continue to suffer.

Spy Cameras and Digital Sex Crimes

Spy cams are tiny, easily concealed cameras that come in different forms. Some are tucked out of sight, while others are disguised as household items. Spy cams have been found in clocks, car keys, USB sticks, and paintings. Digital sex crimes involve taking non-consensual intimate images or videos. Victims of such crimes are often strangers in spaces like toilet stalls, public transit or changing rooms. However, victims are not always estranged. Many victims know their offender, and the crime can happen in places like one’s school, workplace, or the comfort of their own home. Non-consensual content is distributed and monetized in online forums without the victim’s knowledge. Roughly 80 percent of the victims are female, while the majority of perpetrators are male. 

Digital sex crimes devastatingly impact victims. These crimes affect how women live in South Korea – how they navigate public spaces, what they wear, and who they trust. The following excerpt from a survivor reveals such a reality: 

“I’m afraid of using bathrooms when I’m outside. If I have to use one, I spend several minutes [checking] for cameras on the toilet, the gaps between walls, the bathroom door, hinges, etc. Even after making sure there is no camera, I still feel nervous and worried that I may be being filmed. Sometimes I feel a sudden attack of fear that there might be photos or images of me being circulated that I’m not aware of. I went to a restroom at Dongdaegu train station a few days ago and found that almost every stall had at least one hole that had been plugged by other women.”

An Uphill Battle: Women’s Fight for Justice in an Unjust System

In 2021, the police reported more than 16,866 digital sex crimes. However, experts believe the actual figure is much higher since many cases go unreported. South Korea’s current law states that those caught illegally taking or distributing images can be fined or sentenced to a maximum of five years in prison. Yet, data suggests that perpetrators rarely face such steep penalties. In 2017 only 2 percent of arrested perpetrators went to prison for digital sex crimes. 

A representative from an organization that assists survivors said over 63 percent of cases do not result in legal action. Not because women do not want justice but because they know that the stress of a lawsuit is not worth the outcome. The justice process itself is traumatic. Women have reported police questioning them for hours, saying it was their job to collect evidence, pressuring them to drop the case, and making threats if they decided to move forward. 

Some women, however, like Kyung-mi, have received justice. Kyung-mi went to the police after she caught her K-pop star boyfriend Jung Joon-young, filming her while they were having sex. When she first reported the crime in August 2016, she was extensively interrogated and told to “rethink” reporting her case. After being informed that the police could not get Jung’s phone, Kyung-mi dropped the case. Three years later, however, the police received a tip-off about Jung and a warrant was issued. Upon examination, his phone revealed that he had secretly filmed twelve women, including Kyung-mi. Jung was then sentenced to five years in prison.

Kyung-mi proved that justice is possible for victims. Yet, her case was not without struggle. When she first went to the police, she was bullied and harassed online. As she said in a BBC interview, “The whole country was talking about me. No one protected me. My friends said that I was ruining Jung’s life.” It was only when Jung was proven guilty that Kyung-mi was left alone. Despite her victory, Kyung-mi’s case revealed the urgent need for social change and institutional reform.

In 2018, years of anger over government inaction exploded when a woman took a photo of a naked male model and posted it online without his consent. Within days, she was arrested and later sentenced to 10 months in prison and “40 hours of counselling on sexual violence.” The immediate response and harsh sentence starkly differed from how the justice system had addressed crimes against women. The case sparked a series of protests. Tens of thousands of women marched through the streets of Seoul, demanding the government protect them and prosecute their offenders. 

A Missed Opportunity: How Government Response Failed to Address the Root Cause

After the protests, the government announced it would launch a special squad to conduct regular inspections of the city’s public toilets in search of spy cams. The government also reviewed and adopted harsher penalties for digital sex crimes. The Ministry of Gender Equality and Family created a victim support center intended to give “services such as counselling, deleting support, investigative support, litigation support, and post-monitoring” to those affected by digital sex crimes. Still, these responses all failed to address the root of the crisis: the deep gender inequality that normalized the consumption and production of non-consensual content.

Norms rooted in patriarchy, or the idea that men dominate and hold power over women, shape the public and private lives of South Koreans. Women must conform to traditional gender roles, which stress politeness, docility and submission. A woman’s behaviour reflects her familial honour and pride, which she must both uphold. Conversely, men are seen as leaders and hold power and influence. This dynamic maintains gender-based violence because it reinforces the idea that women are inferior and exist to serve men. The gender inequality baked into South Korean society fuels the stigmatization of survivors of digital sex crimes. Stigma discourages women from speaking out or seeking legal options. Women fear their actions may damage their access to education, employment opportunities and personal relationships. Because rather than being seen as victims, women are criticized and blamed for the crime. 

Until South Korea confronts and dismantles its deeply rooted patriarchal beliefs, the progress women have continually fought for will remain slow. As a Human Rights Watch researcher noted, “These crimes are fundamentally about gender inequality … and there’s such deep gender inequality in South Korea.”

A Holistic Solution

The South Korean government has made legal and legislative efforts to address the issue of digital sex crimes but has consistently fallen short. Today the spy cam crisis continues to touch the lives of countless women. The government has failed to acknowledge underlying societal issues that are at play. Without addressing these issues, legal and legislative efforts alone will not be enough to protect women and stop the crisis. 

To properly tackle the problem, a holistic approach is needed. Fairer and more inclusive regulations in hiring and the workplace are essential. In 2022, women occupied only 5.8% of executive positions in South Korea’s publicly listed companies. From 1996 to 2022, the country’s gender pay gap remains the worst among developed nations. Such poor workforce conditions limit women’s opportunities for career advancement and make it difficult to pursue careers in the justice system. 

To effectively address the crisis, better female representation in leadership roles is imperative, a product of improved workplace conditions. Additionally, prioritizing comprehensive education that covers topics like gender equality, consent, and digital citizenship is crucial. Only by educating people and shifting values away from the patriarchal past can the government of South Korea prevent future harm.

Edited by Alexandra Hu

Madalynn Hausch

Madalynn is currently studying political science at the University of British Columbia. Her research interests include gender in politics, sexual and reproductive health rights, Big Tech, and data justice....