|Citizens protest outside Jongno Police Station in central Seoul, calling for strong punishment of those involved in the Telegram sexual exploitation case, Wednesday, as a car carrying prime suspect Cho Ju-bin exits the parking lot. / Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul|
By Jun Ji-hye
Unidentified members of the Telegram chat rooms that involved the sexual exploitation of over 70 female victims, including minors, are expressing their fear of legal punishment as investigative authorities have declared their intention to punish not only the chat rooms' operators, but all users.
Members of the chat rooms are commenting anonymously online, desperately making excuses in an apparent effort to avoid retribution at a time when investigators are closing in on them. Some claimed that they joined the mobile chat rooms "by mistake," or "by accident," with others saying, "I clicked on the wrong link."
One user took a more novel approach, saying, "I have dreamed of becoming a police officer, so I joined the chat room to catch criminals."
At least 74 people, including 16 underage girls, have been sexually exploited in the so-called "Nth room" case involving multiple Telegram chat rooms whose operators blackmailed the victims into performing violent sex acts and sold access to the videos, according to police.
Women's organizations have claimed that there have been 60 such chat rooms on Telegram, and an estimated 260,000 people are believed to have joined them.
Police have so far apprehended 126 people in relation to the case, with 19, including prime suspect Cho Ju-bin who operated the "Baksa room," formally detained.
More than 5 million citizens signed petitions on the Cheong Wa Dae website, urging authorities to disclose the identities of all users and deliver harsh punishments.
President Moon Jae-in has ordered the police and prosecutors to investigate the users in addition to the operators.
The Ministry of Justice called the users "observers," saying it will work to ensure the users are punished as accomplices.
Police officials said it would have been almost impossible for users to join the chat rooms by mistake as they had to go through at least five stages, including opening accounts that enable cryptocurrency exchanges and verifying themselves with their ID cards, to enter the secret chat rooms.
Professor Lee Soo-jung of Kyonggi University, a renowned forensic psychologist here, said, "It is hard to believe that they joined the chat rooms by mistake as operators of such rooms applied rules encouraging users to participate in illegal acts, such as producing obscene material and sharing it, to upgrade their membership. The users are believed to have played an active role."