How Are South Koreans Reacting to the Country's 'Molka' Spycam Epidemic?

How Are South Koreans Reacting to the Country's 'Molka' Spycam Epidemic?
Credit: Ryu Hyo-lim/Yonhap via AP
Why you need to know

A study shows differing attitudes among South Koreans towards the country's spate of secret filming.

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Walking into a changing room in a gym, people begin to go about their business, picking out lockers, changing into gym clothes, and taking showers. Usually, people are not worried about being watched when they are at their most vulnerable.

However, young women in South Korea are advised to check every nook and cranny when going to a restroom, locker room, or just about any other public place for small hidden cameras. Perpetrators even place cameras on shoes to look up women’s skirts and dresses in public. These hidden camera videos, referred to as ‘molka’ in Korean (a reference to a 1990s television show), have increasingly been causing issues among the South Korean population.

In June of this year, an estimated 22,000 people protested in Seoul against the disturbing trend of strangers, mostly men, using spy cameras and other recording devices to film their targets, mostly women, in public places without their permission. These videos called into question not only the apparent willingness of a mostly male audience to engage in such activities but also the general lack of punishment given to those who use these cameras.

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Credit: Reuters / Kim Hong-ji
Moon Seoung-ok, president of the Headquarters of Reporting for Public Good, demonstrates a car key-shaped spycam during a class in Seoul in Sept. 2016.

Evidence suggests an increase of sex crimes and harassment in South Korea. For example, the Korea Times reported an 84 percent increase in sex crimes on trains from 2012-2014. Roughly half of sex crimes reported in 2015 involved spycams, a rapid increase from 2006 rates of 3.6 percent, with an estimated 6,000 cases from 2013-2017 (also see here). Data from the Korean National Police Agency claimed an average of 18 cases per day in 2015. The vast majority (98 percent) of the over 16,000 people arrested from 2012-2017 were men, while roughly 84 percent of victims were women. High profile assailants have included the pastor at a Seoul mega-church and the head coach of the national swimming team.

A 2018 study finds that nearly 90 percent of victims did not know their assailants. More concerning, despite existing laws, lax enforcement often leads to little more than a slap on the wrist, perhaps in part due to many of the assailants otherwise being viewed as normal members of society, with evaluations of the victim and the subjective erotic value of the videos often influencing the punishment or lack thereof. As a result, only about five percent of perpetrators serve time. Meanwhile public campaigns commonly treat the assailants in a less than serious tone, consistent with a “boys will be boys” attitude.

Despite the seemingly widespread nature of molka in South Korea, remarkably little survey research appears to exist on the topic. A survey by the Korea Press Foundation after the protests found that only 50 percent of women and 20 percent of men supported the protesters’ cause. However, that does not directly represent their perceptions of the issue of molka videos themselves. Part of the problem, of course, is the difficulty in acquiring honest answers rather than politically correct responses.

Roughly half of sex crimes reported in South Korea in 2015 involved spycams, a rapid increase from 2006 rates of 3.6 percent.

To overcome this, we surveyed 605 South Koreans this month via an experimental web survey, conducted by Macromill Embrain, in which questions about molka were embedded within a broader public opinion survey. First respondents were randomly assigned to one of three prompts about molka. These versions were based on the actual legal maximum punishments associated with molka to identify perceptions of the severity of punishment. According to the existing laws in Korea, those caught filming a molka video could be fined up to 10 million won (about US$9,000) and sentenced to up to five years in prison. As such, our three versions separate out these punishments to identify sensitivity to the type of punishment. The versions were as follows:

  • Version 1: Do you believe that fining a man caught filming a molka video 10 million won is too much, about right, or too little?
  • Version 2: Do you believe that sentencing a man caught filming a molka video to five years in prison is too much, about right, or too little?
  • Version 3: Do you believe that fining a man caught filming a molka video 10 million won and sentencing him to five years in prison is too much, about right, or too little?

Overall, a majority find the punishments as being too lenient, with less than six percent viewing the punishment as too harsh, although this may in part be a socially desirable response. However, using Version 1 (fine only) as the baseline, we see that mentioning time in prison appears to depress views that the punishment is too little.

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Next, we separated out respondents by gender. Focusing just on the percentage stating that punishments were too low, we see that women compared to men consistently view punishments as insufficient, yet across both subgroups, rates declined in the versions mentioning prison time.

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In addition, of those surveyed, 13.88 percent claimed to have personally watched a molka video, nearly a quarter of males (23.44 percent) compared to less than five percent of females (4.32 percent). When asked if molka videos were harmful to women, 93.06 percent of respondents said yes, with minor differences by gender (males 91.12 percent; females 95.02 percent). Furthermore, 61.32 percent of respondents stated harassment is more common now than five years ago, with 83.47 percent stating that people are more willing to discuss harassment than five years ago. Such rates suggest a growing understanding of harassment, but may also lead respondents to give socially acceptable answers to the molka questions.

The results of the experimental design suggest that the public would be generally supportive of increasing both the fees and the prison sentences for those convicted.

What does this tell us? While South Korea largely remains a patriarchal society, the size of the protests against molka are an indication of the internationalization of the #MeToo movement. The survey results, even if underreporting due to respondents choosing socially acceptable responses, suggest a wider viewership of molka videos then one might have expected. More broadly, the results of the experimental design suggest that the public would be generally supportive of increasing both the fees and the prison sentences for those convicted. However, it remains unclear why people feel the punishments are insufficient and what they think would be a suitable level of punishment.

Regardless, punishments can only serve as deterrents if consistently applied, and only if these punishments are actually enforced on the people using these cameras. The results can also demonstrate the stark differences in perceptions between men and women, with women consistently viewing current punishments insufficient, unsurprising considering that women comprise the vast majority of victims.

The survey used in this article was funded by the Academy of Korean Studies (AKS-2018-R05).

Read Next: Voices from Taiwan Speak Up on #MeToo

Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)

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