On the evening of June 3, a 40-year-old man pulled up in front of a house in Seoul to pick up a 12-year-old girl.
He then drove about 40 minutes to a secluded area on the outskirts of the city, parked the car and ordered her to remove her clothes.
Until that moment, the girl had not suspected anything was wrong. After all, she was the one who connected with him through Kakao Talk to “get spanked.”
It was all supposed to be fun and maybe a little exciting. It was not supposed to end with her being raped.
The case last month was shocking both for the rape itself and the ease with which the girl and man connected through an Internet cafe.
Such cafes, which are seldom regulated, allow members to share photos and video clips of sadistic or other sexually related punishment.
Korea Internet search engines such as Naver and Daum offer diverse services, including e-mail, personal blogs and Internet cafes, which consist of user groups built around shared interests.
Sometimes, those interests are just eccentric; sometimes they are dangerous.
According to Seoul Metropolitan Police, the girl, surnamed Kim, obtained the Kakao Talk ID of the man, surnamed Lee, on a chebeol cafe. Chebeol is the Korean word for “physical punishment.”
Lee joined the cafe - and 10 others - to search for someone to “whip,” according to police.
While the girl initiated contact online, it was Lee who made the first person-to-person connection with a telephone call urging her to meet him, police said.
Police arrested Lee, who is married with two children, on June 25 on charges of abusing and raping a minor. In addition to Kim, police believe the alleged rapist met with three other underage girls.
How was an 12-year-old girl able to join an Internet cafe that centered on violence and led to rape in one of the most regulated Internet environments in the world?
Korea boasts the world’s fastest Internet connections and aims to connect every home in the country to the Internet at one gigabit per second.
It has the highest Internet penetration rate among the 34 OECD countries. According to the recent “OECD Broadband Statistics” report, 45.4 million households in Korea subscribed to mobile broadband internet in 2011, an 89.8 percent penetration rate that was more than double the OECD average of 41.6 percent.
Fast Internet connections help Koreans in a myriad of ways. But they pose significant challenges for overseers, who monitor and regulate inappropriate content and who appear to be struggling to keep pace.
The Internet cafe that Kim used allows anyone born between 1950 and 2010 to join.
Not only can pretty much anyone join, they can easily establish their own cafes.
Back in 2007, police investigated hundreds of chebeol cafes and 12 operators were brought in for questioning; seven of those were released because they were younger than 14.
After Kim’s case became public, Naver, Korea’s largest search portal, blocked access to the cafe and registered the word “chebeol” as “Adults Only,” which excludes anyone younger than 19 from accessing information when they search for the word. However, an official from Naver acknowledged, “There’s no way to ban teenagers from joining such cafes, as it is up to cafe operators to have age restrictions.”
Some cafes even use offline “chebeol tuition,” in which students, mostly in their teens, seek tutors who are willing to impart not only academic knowledge, but physical punishment as well.
A 17-year-old Seoul high school student surnamed Baek said his friends talk about chebeol tuitions.
“I often hear from my friends that they look for chebeol tutors on the Internet who can hit them to help them concentrate on their studies,” said Baek. “If it is effective enough to level up your report cards, I guess all of us would do it.”
According to Baek, “Students who might get rebellious if their teachers at school punish them physically think that when private tutors do that, it is acceptable.”
Police say it is difficult to crack down on “harmful content” for teenagers on the Internet.
“As there’s no authority for police to restrict people from establishing such obscene Internet cafes, it is difficult for us to crack down on them all. We are only allowed to penalize those who violate under current law, such as spreading pornography through the Internet cafe or putting children or teenagers in danger of sexual assault,” said Kim Tae-gyun, of the Seoul Metropolitan Police.
Moreover, he added, “As most people who meet up through those inappropriate Internet cafes to engage in such sadist acts do so by mutual agreement, it is difficult to regard one as a victim and the other as an attacker. This makes it more difficult to punish them.” Monitoring and oversight
As more and more Web portals provide various services for users, overseers are overloaded with content daily.
Last month, Kim Sang-hun, CEO of NHN Corp., which operates Naver, apologized for negligence in monitoring inappropriate content that was posted through one of Naver’s services, “Challenge Manhwa.”
Naver provides a free manhwa, or comics, section called “Webtoon,” which is written by professional artists and updated weekly. According to Naver, there’s an average of seven million unique visitors per month within Korea. When smart phones are included, that number doubles to 14 million connecting to “Webtoon” every week.
In response to the site’s success, Naver established the “Challenge Manhwa” section in 2006 for amateur comic writers to share content.
But last month, a high school student with an ID of “gyulaim” uploaded a comic series titled “Noise” that was overtly oriented toward sex and violence.
The comic was taken down within 24 hours, but it had already circulated.
NHN suspended “Challenge Manhwa” for a week and said it will beef up its oversight.
“Sexually suggestive and violent posts will be instantly taken down and after inspecting it thoroughly, we’ll decide whether to post it again or not,” said Kim. “We’ll reinforce manpower in the monitoring department to allow dual monitoring.” Internet irony
Although it may seem like Korea is lacking when it comes to protecting young Internet users, it is one of the countries that most tightly regulates access by teenagers.
In Korea, minors are blocked from Web sites that require age verification or are declared as “adult only” by the government.
For example, accessing information relating to the word “sex” on local search engines requires users to type in their identification number to verify they are 19 or older. Citizens of foreign countries must enter passport information.
The government even attempted to regulate Internet game playing by minors through the “shut down” system, in which those under the age of 16 were banned from playing games on the Internet from midnight to 6 a.m.
However, teenagers protested that the policy was a violation of their right to spend their free time as they wished. In addition, teenagers frequently sidestepped the system by creating accounts in their parents’ names.
The government backed off, and will hand the responsibility for monitoring teens’ gaming to their parents starting this month. Parents or guardians can limit their children’s time to play games by registering on a Web site operated by the Culture Ministry.
“Korea would probably come in second after China on tight monitoring and regulating of what’s on the Internet. Unlike China, Korea can’t censor what goes on the Internet beforehand. We can only try our best to delete what seems harmful for teens,” said Kim Tae-dong, who is in charge of monitoring Internet content for teenagers at the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family.
“Let’s say we try very hard and delete 100 of those harmful Internet cafes in a week. Another 100 are being made at the same time,” he said.
According to Kim, “People tend to accept that there are crimes in this world that can’t be stopped beforehand, but they expect crimes that are related to to the Internet to be eradicated.” He emphasized that the government, parents and teachers must work together to educate teenagers about the dangers of the Internet.
“What students need in this generation is ethical education, such as making sure they realize that using other people’s identification numbers to access Internet games is a crime,” he said. “They learn that stealing food in supermarket is a crime, too often take cybercrimes lightly.”
But teenagers also need to be aware that sites like the one that led to rape are not a game.
“Kim didn’t know that she was going to be the victim of sexual assault. She just thought she would just receive a couple of spanks,” said Kim, the police officer in charge of the investigation.
She is currently receiving psychotherapy, the officer said, and her “family is even on the verge of breaking up.”
By Yim Seung-hye [email@example.com]