The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

At South Korean beaches and swimming pools, a war against tiny spy cameras

A police officer uses a detector to search for hidden cameras at a public pool in Bucheon, on the outskirts of Seoul. (Min Joo Kim/The Washington Post)

CHANGWON, South Korea — It’s 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 organized 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, capital of the coastal province of South Gyeongsang.

During a recent stop at a local pool, the searchers waved the gizmos all over, from lockers to door frames to toilet bowls to shower heads to just about everywhere in between. And yet the small team — which included two schoolgirls and two housewives, along with a number of dedicated police officers — didn’t find a single camera during the inspection.

It wasn’t a surprise. These inspections in South Gyeongsang have been going on since last September, but they’ve never actually found a hidden camera. In fact, though there are scores of such teams all over the country, police officials say none has ever found a camera — but perhaps that’s 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 An Hee-jung, a rising star in the ruling Democratic Party. 

Although concerns about spy cams and illicit filming are far from new in South Korea — the activity was dubbed “molka” years ago — the problem appears to be growing. The number of suspected perpetrators identified by police rose from 1,354 in 2011 to 5,363 in 2017; more than 95 percent 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 percent 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 saying “My life is not your porn” and, in chants, demanding punishment for the 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, over 80 percent of them 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 in July, 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 “part of daily life” and called for tougher punishments for those caught. 

Some women have taken matters 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 to 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 spaces 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 centers and offices. Nowhere seemed to be off-limits. “Hospitals will ask us to do inspections,” said Lee, the police officer.

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

A lot of the work is educational, 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: Can you spot them?

On a recent Monday morning in a suburb of Seoul, police stood at the entrance to a public pool, handing out small red stickers for smartphones.

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

Not everyone is sure these tactics make a difference. Kim Young-mi, a spokeswoman at the Korean Women Lawyers Association, which conducts research on the issue for legislators, said that inspections have had little impact.

Instead, Kim said, harsher punishments are needed. Violators currently face up to five years in prison or a fine of up to about $9,000. Police statistics from the past five years showed that only 5.3 percent of those indicted on illegal filming charges went to prison, Kim said.

But at least a few people seemed to be reassured by the sweeps. Hong Ah-reum, a 25-year-old musician visiting the pool in Gyeonggi, admitted she had been concerned about spy cams before her visit. “Maybe this will give me some reassurance,” she said.

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

Lee Jung-hee, a 60-year-old housewife on the team, also said she was happy about not finding cameras.

But when she was asked what more South Korea could do to change its attitudes, she took aim not at men but at 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, Chae, the police official, sighed: “If a man said this, it’d be a huge controversy.” 

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