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South Korean Women Face Threat Of Cameras In Bathroom Stalls


There is a disturbing trend in South Korea. Men are secretly recording women in public places. Michael Sullivan reports.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Seriously, women here can't even go out in public without worrying a trip to the bathroom could be a problem. But don't take my word for it. Here's NPR's Seoul producer, Se Eun Gong.

SE EUN GONG, BYLINE: Yeah, I'm worried. Especially - some of those bathroom stalls have random holes on the side. And I'm worried that there are cameras installed inside the holes, and someone can be watching me.

SULLIVAN: Lee Sue-Jung (ph), a professor of criminal psychology at Kyonggi University, says there's nothing particularly unusual about South Korean men. It's just that their access to high-speed Internet and technology is better here. But she's worried the problem is getting worse.

LEE SUE-JUNG: (Through interpreter) The perpetrators get the kind of pleasure that they can't get from watching explicitly exhibited sexual intercourse in commercialized pornography. The problem is that this kind of distorted sexual culture is becoming the norm.

SULLIVAN: Police say they've identified more than 26,000 victims of such videos from 2012 to 2016. Women's advocates say the actual number is much higher, and some women are fighting back.


SULLIVAN: Some have started making kits to protect themselves. Twenty-six-year-old Chung Soo-young (ph) opens one she crowdfunded and shows me what's inside. It's got a little ice pick to smash a camera's peephole lens and stickers to cover up holes.

CHUNG SOO-YOUNG: (Speaking Korean).

SULLIVAN: She says she started making the kits last winter, when she says she was recorded by a man in the stall next to her in a bathroom in an upmarket cafe. She's also started mapping the sites where such videos are uploaded in Seoul.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in Korean).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Chanting in Korean).

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in Korean).

SULLIVAN: In early August, tens of thousands of women took to the streets of Seoul, the largest women's rally here ever, some bearing signs declaring, my life is not your porn. Yoon-Kim Ji-young (ph) is a professor at Konkuk University's Institute of Body and Culture.

YOON-KIM JI-YOUNG: (Through interpreter) An analysis of Seoul regional court's rulings on cases of illicit filming between 2012 and 2016 shows that only about 5 percent of perpetrators receive prison sentences. The rest only got a fine or a suspended sentence.

SULLIVAN: And 98 percent of the perpetrators are men. But when a woman was accused of a similar crime in May, prosecutors acted swiftly and harshly compared to the punishment men received, says Professor Yoon-Kim.

YOON-KIM: (Through interpreter) The female perpetrator in this case was a first-time offender and had only one victim, but still received a highly unusual ten month prison sentence. It is difficult not to suspect that the investigation and the trial on this case was gender biased.

SULLIVAN: Gender bias is an issue here. South Korea's GDP is the 11th biggest in the world, but it's ranked 118th among 144 countries in the World Economic Forum's latest Gender Gap Report. But the spy cam scandal - called molka here - has gotten the attention of the government. Here's Minister of the Interior Kim Boo-Kyum.


KIM BOO-KYUM: (Through interpreter) The so-called molka filming is a shameful activity and a grave crime that must not exist in a civilized society. The government will no longer condone it.

SULLIVAN: Earlier this month, the Seoul city government said it would add 8,000 workers to search public bathrooms on a daily basis, but critics say that the real solution is fairly simple - shut down the websites and servers used to spread such material and stiffen jail terms for the perpetrators. Michael Sullivan, NPR News, Seoul.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOR'S "THE THICKNESS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.