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A 26-Year-Old Sex-Crime Fighter Dives Into South Korean Politics

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·12 min read
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(Bloomberg) -- In the five years since Park Ji-hyun's 21st birthday, the South Korean activist has busted an online sex crime ring, published a memoir, revealed her identity to the masses, and become a senior advisor to a leading presidential candidate.

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He lost, but she didn't. The election elevated Park to the highest levels of national politics. Just months after emerging from anonymity, Park was named interim co-chair of the Democratic Party and the leader of its rebuilding efforts. She’s also become a lodestar for millions of South Korean women enraged by a rash of high-profile sexual harassment and violence against women — and the gender politics of newly elected president Yoon Suk Yeol.

“It is very surprising that in Korea, a woman in her 20s is a leader of a major party,” Park said in a rare interview with a global media organization. “I hope it’s more normal in the future, and not only in Korea. I hope that we can become a society where, regardless of generation or gender, anyone can do anything they want to do.”

For many South Korean women, a voice like Park’s has been a long time coming. The country’s vaunted economic growth rate – a 540-fold increase in per capita GDP since the end of the war that divided the peninsula – has left most women woefully behind. Women earn roughly two-thirds of what men do, the worst gender-pay gap among OECD countries. Men hold 81% of seats in parliament and a whopping 95% of executive-level positions at the country’s publicly traded companies. The sexism persists at home. In two-income households, women on average spend more than three hours a day on housework, compared with 54 minutes for men.

South Korea’s technological advances have also had a dark side for women. One of the world’s fastest internets has facilitated a wave of digital sex crimes, including trafficking in illegal kinds of pornography online, often images that have been captured via tiny spy cams and without the subjects’ knowledge or consent. Technological tools are abused – and women are targets of online harassment – all over the world. But South Korea’s already gaping gender divide has made it worse, according to Heather Barr, an associate director of the Women’s Rights Division at Human Rights Watch and the author of a report on digital sex crime in South Korea: “Misogyny, inequity, and inequality is so pervasive in all aspects of the lives of women and girls there.”

The March presidential election put the country’s gender divide in the spotlight and, for a growing cadre of young feminists, captured the problems with politics as usual. Yoon played to simmering male resentments, pledging to abolish the gender ministry and prosecute women who made false accusations of rape and other sex crimes. His primary opponent, Lee Jae-myung, wasn’t an easy alternative, hailing from a party dogged by so many sexual harassment accusations that it was jokingly derided as the “groping and touching” party.

Park hadn’t been particularly interested in electoral politics. Together with a journalism school classmate, she had infiltrated and exposed a vicious online sex crime ring that blackmailed and victimized young women and girls as young as 12. With her help, the police eventually arrested the ringleaders, a pair of 26-year-old men, and they were sentenced to more than 30 years in jail. During that project and for years afterward, she went by the pseudonym “Flame.” In “Cyber Hell,” a Netflix documentary about the case, she appears in shadow.

She met Lee through her advocacy work. He persuaded her that he was serious about cracking down on digital sex crime and would tackle discrimination against women in workplace. Park agreed to join his campaign as a special advisor for women’s issues, and to help him win the youth vote. But her activism was part of her appeal, and that meant revealing her identity. “I was definitely worried about whether my family would be OK,” she said. “But I came to the point where I thought, ‘I need to increase the power of my voice.’”

As a young activist with a tendency to speak passionately — and bluntly — to her fans and critics alike, Park has drawn comparisons with other millennial firebrands. “You might be reminded of AOC or other young politicians who can be seen as the future of the US Democratic Party,” South Korean director Wonsuk Chin wrote on Twitter recently. “She seems to be a leader who can bring change to Korea, and I support her.”

By many measures, South Korea is an extraordinarily safe country. Gun laws are strict. The overall homicide rate, one of the more reliable measures of crime, is just 0.6 per 100,000 people, 88% lower than in the US. When asked whether they feel safe walking alone at night, more than four out of five South Koreans say they do, higher than three-quarters of OECD countries and, notably, a sense shared almost equally by men and women.

And sexually, the government’s censors cultivate an image of chastity. South Korea’s one of the few countries with a near-total ban on pornography. On TV, there’s rarely so much as a passionate kiss, and explicit sexual references are forbidden in pop music. Judging by the country’s primary cultural exports, South Korean love is most often expressed with long, smoldering eye contact.

In groups and chat rooms on social media, though, it’s a different story. Images and video of women are widely available to buy and trade, and reports of exploitation have skyrocketed, including cyberstalking, extortion and illegal filming of women, typically via spy cams in bathrooms, locker rooms and dressing rooms. The Supreme Prosecutors Office recorded around 1,500 complaints of illegal filming in 2011; within five years, the number had tripled. Women leveled accusations of illegal filming in an ultra-hot Gangnam nightclub partly owned by a onetime member of Big Bang. In another case, pop star Jung Joon-young admitted to filming himself having sex with women without their consent, then sharing the images in social media chat rooms; in 2019, he was sentenced to six years in prison.

Park’s original plan was to work in television news. She thought she’d get married, have a baby and, eventually, retire to a life of global travel. She was in college when the #MeToo movement caught fire, and in South Korea, that included raising awareness of illegal filming. In 2018, thousands of women protested in central Seoul, demanding the government take the problem seriously. It piqued Park’s journalistic instincts, and she teamed up with a classmate to work on an entry for the Korea News Agency Commission’s annual student journalism contest. First prize: 10 million won ($8,159).

Once they gained admission to the chat, Park and her classmate, still known only as “Dan,” were overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of what they found. The first chat room alone had 20 gigabytes, roughly 14 full-length movies’ worth, of images and videos, obtained by spy cams and through other means. They also found a trade in more disturbing images. Many Nth Room users were offering images of women in humiliating or degrading poses, or videos of women harming themselves. Most, Park and Dan would find, were acquired via harassment, blackmail or extortion.

The way it worked, they learned, was that an Nth Room member would acquire a semi-suggestive photo, or a bit of personal information, and use it as fodder to threaten victims. The girls were told that, if they didn’t perform certain sexual or degrading tasks, their photos or personal information would be spread across the internet. In one disturbing example, girls in their early teens are ordered to film themselves licking the floor of a public restroom.

“People know this is a crime, but it seems there are parts of society where there’s no consensus that it’s serious,” she said. “What we call ‘porn’ in Korea are in fact materials of sexual exploitation or sex crime, and I think we have this problem because there’s a shared perception that it’s OK for young men to look at this stuff.”

The Nth Room case made headlines, and the sentences were unusually severe. More typically, people who are found guilty of committing digital sex crimes in South Korea don’t go to jail at all. Between 2016 and 2020, more than 81% have only received a suspended sentence or a fine and just 9.4% were sentenced to jailtime, according to data from the Ministry of Justice. Of those imprisoned, 82% received less than 10 months.

In her newly public role, Park Ji-hyun has left no doubt about who she holds responsible for these and other crimes against women. In a recent committee meeting, she lamented the failure to open a special investigation into a case of sexual abuse in the air force that eventually led to a sergeant’s suicide. She berated her colleagues, telling them “politicians are most certainly responsible.” She struggled to hold back tears.

“When politicians cry, everyone assumes we’re acting,” she said. “But we shouldn't be immune to these cases. When there are victims and bereaved families, we need to act swiftly.”

South Korea’s last president, Moon Jae-in, pledged to address the gender divide, proclaiming himself the country’s first feminist president. Under his administration, women saw modest gains: They were eligible for bigger subsidies if they started a business, for example. The gender pay gap also narrowed, from 62% in 2017 to 68.5% in 2021.

But the backlash has been swift. High youth unemployment and runaway housing prices have fueled resentment among young men and women alike, but some men feel particularly aggrieved by the military service requirement which, they say, puts them two years behind in the job market. Groups formed to fight false reporting of sex crimes and to argue against the gender ministry, both causes that became campaign promises for Yoon. One of the most popular groups, Man on Solidarity — its one-time slogan: “Til all feminists are exterminated” — now boasts near half a million YouTube subscribers and organizes anti-feminist rallies and marches in Seoul.

The presidential race was a nail-biter. Yoon beat Lee by less than one percentage point, lifted by men under 30 and over 60. Some 58% of women younger than 30 voted for Lee, and in the aftermath, the Democratic Party promised to be their standard-bearer. Of the 11,000 voters who joined Lee’s party in the two days after the election, 80% were women. Of those, more than half were younger than 40.

For Park, the months since the election have been bumpy. Shortly after the inauguration, a party member was caught allegedly making a crude sexual innuendo about a colleague during a public zoom call. He said he was misheard, but by the time he apologized, his bad behavior had been eclipsed by a new scandal: the DP announced the expulsion of lawmaker Park Wan-joo for “a serious sexual crime” against a female aide.

As co-chair, it fell to Park Ji-hyun to read the official apology on TV. “We did our best, but it happened again,” she said.

Meanwhile, her critics say she spends too much time obsessing over allegations of sexual harassment and bad behavior within the party and not enough on upcoming local elections. The Democratic Party is struggling mightily. The latest Gallup poll showed its approval ratings below 30% for the first time in six months, compared with 43% for the ruling party. In the Seoul mayoral race, typically considered a measure of national sentiment, the Democratic Party challenger is trailing the incumbent by 20 percentage points in some polls. Even Lee, fresh off his narrow loss in the presidential election, is facing a stiff challenge in his bid for a parliamentary seat.

Some partisans blame Park, saying she’s too inexperienced and naïve for such a big job. In late March, she muffed a pair of basic historic facts in a tribute to veterans, and her critics pointed to the gaffe, along with her diploma from a mid-tier university, as signs of general ignorance. They’ve lambasted her for taking members of her own party to task, and for suggesting that some of the party’s older members consider retirement. A story last week in the Chosun Ilbo newspaper referred to her as a “party wrecker.”

Last week, Park apologized again in televised speech at the National Assembly. “I apologize a hundred times and a thousand times more,” she said. “Please believe in me, in Park Ji-hyun. If you give us another chance in this local election, I will take responsibility and change the Democratic Party. We will faithfully carry out the people's orders to reflect and change.”

Then she laid out a handful of priorities for the future of the Democratic Party. She promised to build a pipeline of young politicians, to protect victims of sexual crimes, to tackle disability rights, social inequality and pension reform.

Her own role in the party and in South Korea’s national conversation is in limbo. She declined to comment on her role once the elections are finished. At the end of her speech last week, though, she pledged herself to social change.

“No matter how difficult and lonely it is, I will keep moving forward with confidence in common sense and the people,” she said. “I will go forward as a burning flame for a deeper democracy and wider equality. Please help.”

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