(CNN)The South Korean leader of an online sexual blackmail ring that targeted minors and young women was sentenced to 40 years in jail on Thursday, marking the end of an explosive criminal case that sparked outrage across the country.
Cho Joo-bin, 25, hosted online rooms on encrypted messaging app Telegram, where users paid to see young girls perform sexual acts under coercion. At least 74 victims, including 16 minors, were blackmailed into uploading explicit images onto the group chats. At least 10,000 people used the chat rooms, with some paying up to $1,200 for access, officials say
After two university journalism students discovered the Telegram groups last summer, police launched their investigation, and arrested Cho in March.
He was later indicted under 15 charges of producing and distributing illegal sexual visual material, forced sexual abuse, rape, sexual harassment, blackmailing, recording sexually abusive behaviors, coercion, violation of private information protection, and fraud.
He was also also found guilty of “instructing a third party to directly rape a victim, who was a minor,” the judge ruled.
Cho’s sentence, passed down in the Seoul Central District Court, also included the wearing of an electronic ankle bracelet for 30 years and a fine of 10.64 million Korean won (about $9,600).
Prosecutors had requested life imprisonment, arguing in court that his crime was “unprecedented in history,” and that Cho had “insulted and abhorred” victims without remorse.
After passing the verdict, the judge, Lee Hyun-woo, explained that Cho had no criminal record and “has made some agreements with some victims.” However, Cho had “created an organization structure” victimizing women, and profited off their exploitation.
“He revealed the personal information of the victims and by doing so not only caused damage, but by distributing this repeatedly caused recurring damage to victims,” said the judge. “His behaviors caused extreme pain on the victims and they are demanding severe punishment.”
“Considering the seriousness and meticulous plotting of the crimes, the number victims and damage on victims, social harm caused by the crime, and the attitude of the defendant, it is necessary to isolate the defendant from society for a long time.”
Police arrested more than 120 people connected to the chat groups in March. Several of Cho’s collaborators were also charged and indicted; five others received sentences on Thursday, ranging from seven to 15 years.
One collaborator, a minor identified only by his surname Lee, was sentenced to a juvenile facility for a minimum of 5 years and a maximum of 10 years.
Cho’s verdict received mixed results from the public, with some praising the decision and others arguing he should have received a life sentence.
Lee Hyo-rin, an activist in a coalition of non-profit organizations, called the verdict a chance to reflect on lenient rulings in previous digital sex crimes.
“In the past, digital sex crimes in South Korea have received weak punishments, and therefore criticism toward the justice system was high,” Lee said. “There are similar crimes ongoing in the country and I hope this ruling will offer guidance to levy serious punishment on possible future digital sex crimes.”
‘My daily scars seem to be endless’
Before Thursday’s sentencing, Cho Joo-bin and several victims last testified at a trial on October 22, where the victims described the exploitation they faced and the trauma that remained.
“I wish I could throw everything away. I have to live with the damage that I still haven’t forgotten,” said one victim’s statement, read by their attorney in court. The identity of the victims has been kept private.
Another victim’s statement, read by their lawyer, expressed skepticism that Cho felt any true remorse.
“I want to ask what he regrets and what he reflects on when he says, ‘I regret.’ He terrorized the victims by calling us slaves. I am wondering if he had ever thought about the victims as real human beings,” the statement said.
“Due to personal information and sexual exploitation video, it is difficult to live a daily life. I’m so busy deleting videos distributed by Cho Joo-bin that my daily scars seem to be endless no matter what treatment I receive. Just as my wounds are endless, I hope Cho’s punishment is endless.”
Cho gave a statement as well, apologizing to the victims.
“At the time of the crime, I didn’t have much thought about human dignity. I admit that I committed the crime by using sex as a means,” he said. “I cannot be excused or evade. I must sincerely atone … There’s no fault of the victims, and I’m responsible for everything.”
Blackmailing girls into sexual slavery
Cho was just one of many operators running similar chats on Telegram when the two university students stumbled upon the private groups. Cho went by the alias of “Guru” (Baksa in Korean) and ran at least eight groups, some of which had over 9,000 members at any one time.
Cho sourced his victims by posting fake modeling jobs online, police said. Young women would submit their personal information, including their social security numbers and addresses, so they could get paid, along with photographs.
Once hired, they would be asked to provide more revealing pictures, which Cho then used as blackmail material. He would threaten to post them on the internet with their personal details if the girls did not work in his Telegram chat rooms, police said in March.
Each chat room had between three to five girls, which Guru called ‘slaves,’ who would obey requests for pictures and videos of explicit acts. One girl was ordered to write the word ‘slave’ above her genitals. Another was made to bark like a dog while naked.
Users paid as much as $1,200 to enter a room using bitcoin transactions, police said in March. Since Bitcoin is a decentralized currency, with no company or official bank to oversee transactions, users can keep their transactions private.
The case was widely followed and condemned across the country, which has been grappling for years with widespread sexual abuse and accusations of pervasive misogyny.
In 2018, tens of thousands of women took to streets of Seoul to protest against illegal filming of women by hidden cameras in motels and public toilets. Videos taken by these spy cams were circulated online.
And in 2019, South Korean police discovered an online group chat that shared sexually explicit videos of women filmed without their knowledge and consent, and named several high-profile K-pop stars as members of the group.
The string of scandals have created a wave of protests, campaigns against sexual harassment, calls for greater action and accountability, and the rise of mainstream feminist voices and ideas.