Nth Room Case
The Nth Room Case is a digital sexual crime case that occurred in South Korea from 2018 to 2020 in which explicit content, obtained by threatening and coercing women to do certain activities, was spread or sold mainly through the use of the mobile app, Telegram. Multiple perpetrators obtained the identifications of job-seeking women and blackmailed them into providing the desired visual content that was to be used for distribution across a network. After gaining attention from the public, a massive outrage compelled the police into investigating and capturing the perpetrators behind the case. The case was one of the many instances of digital sexual crime in South Korea and was facilitated by the anonymity provided by technologies such as cryptocurrency and message encryption.
- 1 Incident
- 2 Investigation
- 3 Perpetrators
- 4 Victims
- 5 Public Response
- 6 Government Response
- 7 Ethical Implications
- 8 References
The “Nth Room” Case is a sexual crime case that occurred in South Korea from the first half of 2018 until March 2020. The perpetrators began by advertising a highly paying job through social media platforms such as Twitter, where girls and women were lured into providing valuable information such as their personal identification. With their identifications compromised, the victims were forced to follow the instructions of the perpetrators. The perpetrators took advantage of the anonymity of the mobile app, Telegram, to make chat rooms designed to distribute the sexual content obtained by exploiting the victims into providing the kind of content the distributors desired. Some rooms a membership system where only users who paid a certain amount in cryptocurrency could enter.
The name “Nth Room” is derived from the titles of the multiple chatting rooms hosted on Telegram for the same purpose of online prostitution through the distribution of explicit content. The first rooms ranged from numbers 1 to 8 (i.e. 1st Room, 2nd Room, 3rd Room) and the variable ‘N’ served as a way to classify the group of rooms as a whole. Other rooms with titles that did not follow the numerical order instead represented either the room’s owner or the specific type of videos it was offering, with the most famous and notorious room being the Doctor’s Room.
The first individuals to act on this case were two female university students who went by the alias, “Team Flame.” They began investigating the Telegram chat rooms with the intent of submitting their work for an investigative journalism competition hosted by the Korea News Agency Commission. Using Telegram’s anonymity, they managed to join some of the suspected chat rooms to investigate the crime and capture any information that could be used to identify any suspects. Team Flame eventually won the competition with their submission titled, “Do you sell child porn?... Crime flourishing on Telegram.” This raised awareness of the problem and was followed by a police investigation. 
Exact details of the police investigation on the culprits behind the “Nth Room” Case have not been revealed. As shown in a report about the investigation behind the Doctor’s Room made by the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency, the investigation started in September of 2019 and after 6 months of investigation using search warrants, CCTV analysis, international cooperation with investigation, and cryptocurrency tracking, it was able to track down 14 suspects including Cho Ju Bin and arrested 5 of them. 
Moon Hyung Wook (갓갓 / "God God")
Moon Hyung Wook was born in 1995 and was the original creator of the “Nth Rooms” created for the making and sharing of sexual exploitation. Moon first made an account in Telegram in 2018, where he started sharing explicit videos with an alias. Before the Nth Room Case, there were female chat room owners who shared sexual content with their own bodies and their faces covered. Moon devised a plan to obtain the identity of these women to threaten them and use them for his own purposes. His plan consisted of him using two different accounts. One account was used to send threat messages to the victim and the other was used to offer help to the victim. With the victims being afraid of the threats, they turned to obtain help, where they were told to access a link with a hacking program. Moon designed the link so that he would obtain the victim’s information and proceeded to blackmail his victims into completing his gruesome requests if they didn’t want their videos shared to their family or friends. He then opened a secret room in Telegram where he shared the media that he obtained from threatening his victims. This secret room quickly gained popularity and eventually was divided into rooms numbered 1 to 8. Each room had dozens of videos uploaded daily by girls and women ranging from students to adults with around 300 to 700 users per room . Moon was sentenced to 34 years in prison for his crimes. 
Cho Ju Bin (박사 / "Doctor")
Cho Ju Bin was born in 1995 and was a college graduate who had also finished the Korean mandatory military service. During his time in college, he majored in Information and Communication and with a high GPA, he was rewarded several scholarships. According to his colleagues, contrary to his academic feats, he had trouble with interpersonal relations. However, his colleagues also said that Cho did not break any rules regarding sexual assault. 
Cho was the creator and administrator of one of the Telegram chatting rooms of the “Nth Room” Case called the “Doctor’s Room” where he went by the nickname, “Doctor.” Seeking profit, Cho divided his room into one subgroup where anyone could access the offered media with no cost and three subgroups that offered “more explicit” media depending on the payment made in cryptocurrency. Cho gained profit with the content obtained from exploiting his victims, whom he often referred to as slaves. As of March 2020, 74 victims from the Doctor’s Room have been identified and around 130 million Korean Won (about $110,000) of Cho’s profits have been seized. Frequent users of the Doctor’s Room were assigned by Cho as his “employees” and were instructed to sexually assault the victims, launder money, share content, or help administer the room. Cho was able to obtain private information about the identity of victims and even some of his clients by bribing public service personnel who had the access to that kind of information. He then took advantage of the information to blackmail his victims and clients. 
Kang Hun (부따 / “Buddha”)
Kang was a minor who was also an accomplice for Cho Ju Bin’s Doctor’s Room. Kang conspired with Cho in 2019, threatening 19 victims, 7 of them being minors, and selling and distributing sexual content in Telegram from profit. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison. 
Lee Won Ho (이기야 / “Igiya”)
Lee was born in 2000 and was serving his Korean Mandatory Military Service when he was caught for being an accomplice for the Nth Room Case crime. He was a member of the Doctor’s Room and helped in advertising the room and distributing sexual content. Lee was sentenced to 30 years in prison and his identity was revealed to the public by the Korean army. 
Nam Kyeong Eup
Nam was a paid member of one of Cho Ju Bin’s rooms before he became an accomplice in operating chat rooms. He assisted in finding targets and coerced victims to have sex in front of a camera. 
At the end of the investigation in December 2020, a total of 1154 victims who were affected by the Nth Room Case were confirmed. 60.7% of those were in their 20s or younger, and a large portion of the victims were minors, including middle school students.  Victims were not able to report the crime happening because they were afraid of the threats being held onto them or because they were afraid of the judgment they would receive by their surroundings.
In March 20, 2020, an online national petition was created on the Korean Blue House website. The petition called for the disclosure of the identities of every member that was registered within the Telegram chat rooms. Policy states that the presidential office has to release an official response if a petition manages to receive at least 200,000 signatures within a one-month period. 
Korean celebrities, including famous K-Pop stars, joined the cause by sharing their concerns about the issue and encouraging people to sign the petition through the use of social media. 
With the national petition receiving a record high of around 2 million signatures, the Chief of the National Police Agency and the Minister of Gender Equality and Family both gave an official response. 
Chief of the National Police Agency
The Chief of the National Police Agency’s response consisted of assurances to the following:
- The disclosure of the face and personal information of Cho Ju Bin, the main operator of the Doctor’s Room, as requested by the petition. The citizens’ right to know, prevention of recidivism by suspects, and prevention of future crime were cited as reasons for disclosing this information.
- Thorough investigation on all known perpetrators with strict measures that align with the demands of the citizens.
- The installment of a Special Investigation Headquarters, which would be led by the Cyber Safety Bureau of the National Police Agency and would be focused on responding to the digital sex crimes prevalent in South Korea’s society.
- The intent to strengthen international cooperation from organizations such as Interpol, FBI, HSI, NSA, as well as cooperation from global IT companies such as Google, Twitter, and Facebook as an effort to prevent potential investigation difficulties that might arise due to international constraints.
- The confiscation of illegal profit and a thorough tax investigation on the perpetrators.
- The expansion of the National Police Agency’s workforce and the strengthening of investigation capabilities, especially to the Cyber Sexual Violence Investigation team.
- Further development of investigation techniques focused on the dark web and cryptocurrency and further enhancement of the existing tracking system on illegal filming.
- The use of Interpol’s ICSE (International Child Sexual Exploitation) Database for real-time monitoring of illegal content, prompt investigation, and instant notification to the victim.
Minister of Gender Equality and Family
The Minister of Gender Equality and Family’s response consisted of assurances to the following:
- An establishment of a standard for sentencing digital sex crimes that align the citizens’ sentiment.
- The Supreme Court has accepted the establishment of sentencing standards for digital sex crimes including child and adolescent pornography, illicit filming, and the distribution of illegal content.
- The revision of the law on digital sex crimes, with a stricter sentence in particular for digital sex crimes involving minors as well as stricter punishment against digital sex crimes involving blackmailing, illegal filming, online grooming, and the possession, production, distribution, or sale of sexual exploitation videos.
- The establishment of a digital sex crime monitoring system in cooperation with the National Police Agency.
- An enhancement on the perception of the gravity of digital sex crime by punishing possession of pornography and enhancing education.
- The strengthening of immediate support for any victims of digital sex crimes through the operation of a 24-hour Digital Sexual Crime Victim Support Center.
Anonymity is a widely debated subject in the field of information technology. Anonymity is defined by the detachment of the identity from an entity. It can be manifested in various ways and there are both positive purposes such as free expression or protection from publicity and negative purposes such as hate crime with no accountability or unidentifiable criminal activity that anonymity serves. According to “The Handbook of Information and Ethics,” anonymity serves a variety of purposes which can be categorized into three groups. These categories are not mutually exclusive and any given case of anonymity may serve any or all of these purposes :
- Agent Anonymity: anonymity for the sake of furthering action by the anonymous person.
- Recipient Anonymity: anonymity for the sake of preventing or protecting the anonymous person from actions by others.
- Process Anonymity: Anonymity for the sake of a process.
In the realm of information technology, there are many cases in which anonymity has an important role regarding ethics:
- Data Mining: Data mining is the process of tracking and recording users’ information on databases with a certain purpose. Data mining has various purposes including tailored marketing and eavesdropping, but if the data is skewed, the results may be biased. Most users assume their activities on their technological devices are anonymous, but data about them in many different forms is deliberately being stored for some purpose, positive or not.
- Attribution Bias: Anonymity can potentially remove the influence of bias in certain practices. One example is the practice of blind auditions where the judges cannot see the auditioner who is performing in order to prevent any bias that could arise. In forms of information technology where judgment is based on some set of information, certain aspects of such set can be intentionally hidden to prevent any potential bias.
- Expression of Self: Anonymity allows an individual to act or express themselves in ways that would not be possible otherwise. This can have positive or negative implications.
Anonymity's influence on the Nth Room Case:
- Cryptocurrency: The use of cryptocurrency was one of the information technologies that allowed the Nth Room Case to occur. The anonymity guaranteed by cryptocurrency allowed chat room members to hold transactions that could not get tracked down by the police. The anonymity that cryptocurrencies provide is designed to be a positive feature that grants the user privacy and security. However, users may also exploit such a feature through illegal activities such as money laundering or the purchase of illegal material such as drugs, firearms, pornography, and other products that are commonly available in sources such as black markets and the dark web. 
- Telegram: The anonymity provided by the mobile social networking app, Telegram, allowed the Nth Room Case perpetrators and users to interact with each other without having their content compromised by outsiders. The Secret Chat feature of Telegram uses end-to-end encryption to ensure the privacy of not only the messages but also every type of media sent in a Secret Chat room. 
Sexual Crime in South Korea
The Nth Room Case was not the first digital sex crime incident that took place in South Korea. Various instances of sex crime enabled by the advancement of technology have taken place throughout the history of modern South Korea.
- Soranet: Digital sex crime first arose in Korea during the 2000s with the emergence of a website called Soranet, which contained secretly filmed videos of women. Soranet attracted millions of users and offered thousands of explicit content until it was shut down in 2016 after activists protested to bring down the website. The co-founder of the website was arrested and fined in 2018 with a four-year sentence.
- Burning Sun Scandal: The Burning Sun Scandal was a sex crime scandal that involved several Korean celebrities. It was named after the nightclub owned by Seungri, a K-Pop star from the popular group, Big Bang, where the sex crimes took place. Seungri and several others, including other Korean celebrities, were allegedly involved in prostitution, drug trafficking, and police corruption. 
Under current South Korean laws, possessing child or juvenile pornography is punishable by up to one year in prison or fines up to 20 million Korean won (equivalent to $16,000). If the viewer proves that they were not aware that the subject of the material was a minor, they can not be punished. According to the South Korean Prosecutor’s office, only 80 out of 3,449 suspects charged with the distribution of sexual content of minors were sentenced to jail. According to CNN, Jin Sunmee, a Korean lawmaker, said, “Our justice system is too lenient to offenders and it is heartbreaking to think the system has missed its golden time to protect our children.” 
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