‘My life is not your porn’: South Korea’s war against spy cameras and sexual harassment

Community cam-hunter squads now conduct electronic sweeps of public spaces

It has been an excruciatingly hot summer in South Korea, but those heading to the beach or the swimming pool to relax may find themselves burned by something else – hidden spy cameras that film them in a state of undress.

In response to a growing outcry, teams organised by the police have sprung into action. Armed with infrared scanners that can spot a lens and devices that detect electrical charges, they spend hours hunting for cameras installed by “peeping Toms” in changing rooms and public bathrooms.

“We have to go out more often these days,” said Lee Su-hyun, a police officer from Changwon in the coastal province of South Gyeongsang.

During a recent stop at a local pool, team members waved the gizmos from lockers to door frames to toilet bowls to shower heads to just about everywhere in between. Yet the small team, which includes two schoolgirls, two housewives and a number of dedicated police officers, did not find a single camera.

It was not a surprise. These inspections in South Gyeongsang have been going on since last September, but a hidden camera has never been found. Indeed, though there are scores of such teams nationwide, police officials say none has ever found a camera – but perhaps that is not the point.

South Korea is in the midst of a battle against sexual harassment. Over the past year, the country’s #MeToo movement has taken down multiple high-profile men accused of harassment and assault, including Ahn Hee-jung, a rising star in the ruling democratic party.

Although concerns about spy cameras and illicit filming are far from new in South Korea, the problem appears to be growing. The number of suspected perpetrators identified by the police rose from 1,354 in 2011 to 5,363 in 2017, and more than 95 per cent were men.

Police say that the wider availability of smartphones, as well as the rise of social media, contributed to this increase. Indeed, despite the focus on hidden cameras, 90 per cent of the crimes involved filming with regular smartphones, statistics show.

This summer, the backlash began. Tens of thousands of women took part in multiple street protests in Seoul, holding up signs that said “my life is not your porn” and demanding punishment for men who film videos as well as those who watch them.

Police identified more than 26,000 victims of illicit filming between 2012 and 2016 of whom more than 80 per cent were female. But many never find out they are victims. The real number “would be 10 times higher than the police figure” if the full extent were known, said Oh Yoon-sung, a criminology professor at Soonchunhyang University.

The controversy even reached North Korea. “What is wrong with South Korean men?” one North Korean official asked visiting journalists this month, according to local media.

There are signs of concern at the top. In May, South Korean President Moon Jae-in lamented that spy cams had become a “a part of daily life” and called for tougher punishments for those caught.

Some women have taken action into their own hands. A small group uploaded videos apparently filmed in men’s changing rooms – a revenge that upended the gender dynamics of a largely male-perpetrated crime.

But much of the battle falls on authorities. Police officials say that over the past year they have undertaken a variety of new initiatives, from scouring the web to find illicitly recorded videos to keeping better tabs on sales of camera hardware. But inspections of public areas may be the most high-profile of the measures on offer – whether cameras are found or not.

The team in South Gyeongsang has inspected all sorts of places: beaches, swimming pools, hotels, music venues, shopping centres and offices. Nowhere seemed to be off limits. “Hospitals will ask us to do inspections,” said Mr Lee.

Last month, the province’s police force received about $267,000 (£203,000) to focus on the problem, according to local police official Chae Kyoung-deok.

Much of the work is educational, Mr Chae said. At a police-run facility, visitors are shown objects that contain a hidden camera: a baseball hat, a belt, a watch, a lighter, a USB stick, a necktie, a set of car keys. A sign warns that a man could install a camera in his shoe. There are even two hidden cameras in the room. Visitors are asked to spot them.

On a recent Monday morning in suburban Seoul, police stood at the entrance to a public pool, handing out small stickers that placed a red circle around a phone’s camera lens.

The idea was to remind people that surreptitious filming is a serious crime, said Kim Kyoung-woon, head of public relations for the Gyeonggi police. He explained that the word “spy cam” had playful connotations in South Korea – the phrase “molka” comes from a popular 1990s television show that featured hidden-camera pranks – so some do not realise how devastating it is for victims.

Some doubt these tactics are worth the effort. Kim Young-mi, a spokeswoman at the Korea Women Lawyers Association, which researches the issue for legislators, said that inspections have had little impact.

Instead, Ms Kim said, there should be harsher punishments for those caught. Violators face up to five years in prison or a fine of up to nearly $9,000 (£6,800), but police statistics from the past five years showed that only 5.3 per cent of those indicted on illegal filming charges went to prison, Ms Kim added.

The sweeps seemed to reassure some people. Musician Hong Ah-reum, 25, who was visiting the pool in Gyeonggi, admitted she had been concerned about spy camerass. “Maybe this will give me some reassurance,” she said.

In South Gyeongsang, some felt similarly. “We didn’t find anything today,” student Park Jeong-yeon, 16, who took part in the inspection, said. “It made me a little less concerned.”

Housewife Lee Jung-hee, 60, who had also accompanied the inspection, said she was happy with their unsuccessful hunt for cameras. But her involvement was not necessarily a reflection of progressive views. When asked what more South Korea could do to change its attitudes, she took aim not at men but their female victims.

“I think that young women should dress more modestly and take more care about their own body,” she said with a laugh. “That would lead to less sexual assault.”

Amid awkward laughter around the table, Mr Chae sighed: “If a man said this, it’d be a huge controversy.”

By Adam Taylor and Min Joo Kim

The Washington Post