In March 2018 a joint task force of law enforcement officers from the USA, UK and South Korea took down Welcome to Video, a South Korean-based child pornography website hosted on the darknet. The seizure of the site was the result of one of the largest operations against child pornography ever launched. According to the authorities involved in the operation, the site contained eight terabytes (more than 250,000 videos) of child pornography and content depicting the sexual exploitation of children, including footage of the rape of young children. Most of the videos were uploaded from other similar sites or from closed chats on Telegram channels, but approximately 45% of them consisted of new content that the authorities had not previously been aware of.
Welcome to Video was also one of the first sites to use Bitcoin in order to monetize child pornography, thus enabling users to hide their identities when carrying out financial transactions. Users exchanged the cryptocurrency for “points” which they could then use to download videos or purchase VIP accounts. They could also earn points by uploading new child pornography content. Between 2015 and March 2018, $370,000 worth of cryptocurrency was transferred to the site.
The darknet site had 1.28 million subscribers and at least 3,344 paying subscribers from all over the world. Law enforcement agencies in the US and eleven other countries arrested 337 of those 3,344 subscribers, including 223 South Koreans. For example, authorities in the UK have announced that they have completed 18 investigations, resulting in 7 convictions.
The site’s visitors included a considerable number of high-ranging officials. These included Gábor Kaleta, the Hungarian ambassador to Peru, who had downloaded more than 19,000 images from the site. His case did not become publicly known in Hungary until February 2020. In June 2020 he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to a fine of 540,000 forints (~1500 EUR) and a one year suspended prison term.
But this article will focus on Son Jung-woo, a 24-year old South Korean who ran the site between June 2015 and March 2018, during which period he made more than 400 million won ($330 000) from it. This was the first case in which the South Korean authorities arrested a suspect who was carrying out activities over the darknet. It is still unclear whether he was running a preexisting site, or whether he was its creator. When the US Internal Revenue Service discovered that cryptocurrency transactions were being used to pay for access to child pornography it sent case materials to South Korea’s National Police Agency, and as a result of this international collaboration the location of the server in Korea was identified and Son Jung-woo was arrested. In view of the fact that he had no prior convictions, the trial court sentenced him to two years in prison and a three-year suspended sentence for violations of the Law on Protection of Children and Young People from Sexual Offences and the Law on Information Protection.
However, Son Jung-woo was released from his detention center after six months, and then got married in April 2019 while his case was being reviewed by the appeal court. Taking into account the undesirability of separating him from his family, in May 2019 the appeal court sentenced him to one and a half years in prison, and forfeiture of approximately 400 million won in cryptocurrency that he had received as a result of his operations.
Son Jung-woo had almost served his sentence when in April 2020 the US Ministry of Justice submitted a request for his extradition based on his August 2018 indictment by a federal grand jury in the District of Columbia on nine charges relating to the large-scale sexual exploitation of children.
In May 2020 Son Jung-woo’s father requested the South Korean courts not to extradite his son to the US. This request drew angry criticism from commenters on the Internet. After the failure of his request for clemency Son Jung-woo’s father filed a complaint with the public prosecution service, accusing his son on withholding the proceeds of criminal activity. The plan was quite simple – if his son was tried in South Korea for this offence then he could not be extradited to the US as this would be in breach of the country’s double jeopardy rule, which prevent a person being punished tice for the same offence. While in South Korea such an offense is punishable by up to five years in prison or a fine of up to 30 million won ($24,390), in the US it is punishable by up to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $500,000. The difference between the two countries’ approaches is striking – a US court sentenced one of Son Jung-woo’s subscribers to five years in prison just for downloading and viewing child pornography.
On June 6, 2020 the Korean court rejected the US extradition request. It cited three grounds: firstly that the extradition might obstruct the investigation in South Korea, secondly that the courts in South Korea have full jurisdiction to determine the sentence imposed on a defendant who is a South Korean citizen, and thirdly, keeping him in the country would help the national authorities in their struggle against child pornography. Son Jung-woo was then released pending new criminal proceedings. The US Ministry of Justice “expressed its disappointment,” but, rather surprisingly, did accept the refusal and did not repeat its request.
On June 9, 2022 the South Korean Public Prosecutor requested a sentence of five years in prison plus a fine of 5 million won, and on July 5, 2022 the court sentenced Son Jung-woo to two years in prison. On July 14 he appealed, so it is clear that the proceedings will continue for quite some time…
What are we to make of all this? Perhaps the following points may provide an answer:
- Unlike persons involved in other scandals, individuals convicted of this kind of offence, and of directly forcing underage children to appear in pornographic videos are generally sentenced to between 25 and 40 years in prison.
- That suggests that Son Jung-woo may be in possession of sensitive information, for example a database of VIP subscribers, and perhaps it is considered important that the identity of some of these persons should not be made public. Conspiracy theorists may speculate about who these persons might be – and their lists of possible suspects will depend on their own political convictions – but they are likely to agree on one thing: if Son Jung-woo were extradited to the US he would be forced to reveal this information to the prosecutors.
- There is also the question of misplaced national pride – the idea that a South Korean citizen, whatever his crimes, should be judged by a “Korean Court applying Korean law,” and the fact that the prosecutors are only now beginning to clamp down on sexual crimes is not seen as a major problem. After all, Son Jung-woo is not a public figure facing politically motivated accusations of sexual harassment or paying for sexual services.
- In addition to misplaced pride there is also misplaced shame – while South Korea may have very low levels of street crime, making it one of the safest countries in the world, it is also among the five countries with the highest number of sexual crimes.
- There is also the question of what constitutes child pornography: when the site was taken down the age of consent was thirteen, and thus a relationship between a schoolgirl and an older man, as depicted, for example, in Kim Ki-duk’s controversial film Samaritan Girl was not treated as criminal and could not even be classed as prostitution as there was a) no pimp and b) no payment involved. Following the Welcome to Video case and a number of other scandals the age of consent was raised to 16, but the new law does not have retroactive effect.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of China and Contemporary Asia RAS, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.