After her death, two previously little-known names started trending on Korean social media: Choi Jong-bum and Oh Duk-shik. The former is her ex-boyfriend, accused of filming Goo naked while they were intimate and blackmailing her by threatening to release the footage, among other charges. The latter is the male judge who acquitted Choi of the charge this August, while convicting him of other charges, including assault.
Spy cameras, or “molka,” have emerged as a hot-button issue in South Korea. Last year’s anti-molka rallies, which brought out historic numbers of women onto the streets of Seoul, were followed by months of media hype. Various sectors of the government declared “war against molka,” including showy campaigns searching for cameras in public bathrooms.
But reality has proved more sobering than the headlines. Most spy cam-related bills, including some that aim to fine or imprison service providers who don’t delete such footage from their websites, continue to stall in the National Assembly, leaving the victims of these crimes to continue to try to find justice in a flawed system.
According to police estimates, South Korea has seen the number of spy-cam cases each year jump to around 6,000 between 2013 and 2017. An overwhelming majority of the victims are women, and most perpetrators are men. Offenders can face up to five years in prison, although that rarely happens in even the severest cases. Most perpetrators receive fines as punishment.
For years, critics have decried the light sentencing, believing that it motivates men to repeat the offenses. That’s not hard to do on South Korea’s lightning-speed Internet, full of unregulated hubs to exchange illegal content. Spy-cam videos are often consumed as “natural” porn and “seen uncritically as a matter of taste,” said Ha Yena, an anti-spy-cam activist.
After the infamous Burning Sun scandal erupted earlier this year, embroiling big male acts in K-pop for filming and distributing spy-cam content, the issue returned to the spotlight. “Let’s meet them online, go to a strip bar and rape them in the car,” wrote singer-songwriter Jung Joon-young — who may face seven years in prison for spy-cam and gang-rape charges — in a group chat among the accused. The controversy struck a chord among Korean women — even stars like Goo.
“When I broke the news about Jung’s group chat,” Kang Kyung-yoon, a reporter at SBS, said in a TV interview a day after Goo’s death, “Goo Hara called me directly after seeing my article. She said she wanted to help. ... She was suffering because [her ex-boyfriend] was acquitted on the molka charge.”
Last year’s spy-cam rallies were triggered by what protesters argued was a lack of gender sensitivity in law enforcement. South Korea’s law enforcement is predominantly male. Most Korean police officers are men. A woman has never been chief justice of the Supreme Court, chief of the National Police Agency or the prosecutor general. Only 30 percent of judges are women.
After Goo’s death, the renewed attention to her case is eliciting a similar frustration, with one newspaper even saying that Judge Oh’s team had “zero gender sensitivity.” Some of the judge’s reasons for acquitting Choi reportedly include the following: After the couple met on a television program, Goo contacted Choi first via Instagram. They also had sex regularly. Goo herself regularly took personal, sensitive pictures of Choi. Yet none of these reasons relate to Choi’s charges or show an understanding of consent and women’s experiences.
The concerns with the justice system run deeper than spy-cam crimes. A few months ago, a college student was granted probation after beating his girlfriend to death for showing interest in another man. According to media reports, the judge said the murder appeared “accidental,” and that “they seemed to have been deeply in love.”
“The judicial branch seems to have less awareness than ordinary citizens,” criticized Heo Min-sook, a professor at Ewha Womans University. Her 2014 study, which analyzed more than 100 murders committed by a partner, found judges were far more likely to use words like “accident” and “rage” to describe the motives of male perpetrators — an implicit form of victim-blaming.
Goo’s death comes a mere 41 days after the death of her close friend Sulli, another beloved star who had suffered from enormous amounts of cyberbullying and abuse online.
The deaths, so close together, are a chilling wake-up call to the harsh realities — not just for K-pop stars, but for all South Korean women, dangerously vulnerable in the face of abuse and violence.