Earlier this week, Son Jong-woo, the notorious operator of the world’s largest child pornography site, walked out of a South Korean prison having completed an 18-month sentence behind bars.
The South Korean’s extradition was requested by the United States, where some of the users of his site had already received sentences of as much as 15 years in prison, but much to the chagrin of anti-sexual violence advocates, that request was rejected.
To many, Son’s case exemplified what has come to be seen as a parade of serious offenders receiving light sentences for heinous crimes. Now he, like many others perceived as getting off with a slap on the wrist, has now found himself in “Dijiteol Gyodoso” (“디지털교도소”), or “Digital Prison.”
Increasingly, angry South Koreans are taking matters into their own hands, launching what amounts to an online shadow justice system in the form of an anonymously run website.
The Digital Prison website effectively functions as a name-and-shame operation, disclosing detailed personal information of criminals—and sometimes suspects—including their names, ages, backgrounds, photos, and even phone numbers.
As of press time, there are some 80 posts under the heading “A List of Criminals.” The website mainly deals with three types of criminal: sex offenders, child abusers, and murderers.
Ruling party lawmaker Nam In-soon, meanwhile, said: “The anger and despair of the people who have lost their trust in the judiciary is rising.”
Son’s entry on Digital Prison also includes the particulars of the three judges blamed for giving him “light sentences.”
But not everyone in Digital Prison is a convicted criminal.
Also on the website is the personal information of former teammates and coaches of triathlete Choi Suk-hyeon, who took her own life two weeks ago after years of alleged physical and psychological abuse in the world of elite Korean athletics. Choi had previously attempted to report the abuse, but her complaint was allegedly ignored.
Though one of the alleged perpetrators in Choi’s case was arrested on Friday and others are under investigation, it remains to be seen whether more will be arrested, and none have been convicted as yet.
The unnamed operator of Digital Prison describes the site as “disclosing the identity of individuals who committed malicious crimes, aiming at putting them under social judgement.”
“Criminals are evolving and leveling up because of light judicial punishments,” they wrote. “[I’m going to] comfort survivors by releasing the identities of offenders, which is what they fear most.”
The operator added that “freedom of expression [on the site] is guaranteed 100 percent, so you can write comments and posts as much as you want and it will not be influenced by the country’s cyber liber charges or contempt charges.”
The website, which has a Russian domain name, also solicits tips via email and Instagram, and according to the operator is “strongly encrypted,” and housed on a “bulletproof server installed in [the] bunkers of [the] Eastern European bloc.”
On July 9, however, the owner announced that the website was seeking donations after a spike in traffic on the back of recent media reports left them unable to pay their server costs.
“Maintenance expenses used to be about $800, but now [are] much more beyond [my] control,” they said. “[I] would appreciate it if you could help us with the wish of the website’s long-term operation.”
The owner also shared a Bitcoin wallet address, but the post and menu have disappeared from the website.
Meanwhile, the Busan Metropolitan Police Agency has launched a preliminary investigation into the website on the orders of the National Police Agency.
The investigation will be formalized if the agency’s suspicions are confirmed, a public relations officer with the Busan police told VICE News.
Some local media outlets have published reports raising concerns that the website could be wrongly accusing unconvicted suspects and imperiling the rule of law, but Koo Jeong-woo, a professor of sociology at Sungkyunkwan University, told VICE News that attitudes towards suspects’ rights in Korea could be changing.
“South Koreans have started to be more interested in sexual crimes and equality since the #MeToo movement, and think that criminals’ rights can be limited when they come into conflict with victims’ [rights],” Koo said, while warning that the illegal divulging of personal information should nonetheless be restrained.
“But we have to understand the context of why people support the website.”
Oh Yoon-sung, a professor of criminal justice at Soonchunhyang University, told VICE News that the website’s support base was born out of frustration at a pattern of strict standards applied to victims and lenient sentences for offenders.
“[The existence of] Digital Prison means that Koreans don’t think the country’s judicial system work properly,” Oh said. “Accumulated anger and dissatisfaction from numerous past cases have created the website.”
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