As a young activist with a tendency to speak passionately – and bluntly – to her fans and critics alike, Ms 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 per cent 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 levelled 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.
Ms 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 Ms 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 (S$10,932). Once they gained admission to the chat, Ms 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, Ms 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.”