South Korean women fear acid attacks in backlash over rights protests

The organisers of the largest women’s rights protests South Korea has ever witnessed say they have been forced to hide their identities after threats of acid attacks and the risk of losing their jobs in a backlash against an unprecedented wave of female-led activism. 

In a rare interview, the group, which calls itself ‘Women’s March For Justice’, told The Telegraph that “we are ridiculed and even fired from our jobs because we speak out … women can only survive by maintaining their anonymity because Korean society is run by men.”

The traditionally conservative society of Asia’s fourth largest economy has seen snowballing protests against sexist behaviour since the start of the year after a female public prosecutor went public with allegations of workplace sexual harassment, adding a Korean voice to the global #MeToo movement. 

Last week a government clampdown on surgical abortions became the trigger for the latest in a long line of women’s demonstrations, this time calling for reproductive freedom as a fundamental right. 

However, it is the sinister issue of “spycam” videos, which involve men secretly filming women in toilets, changing rooms and other public places, that has sparked the most fury. 

In early August, more than 40,000 women took to the streets of Seoul in what has now become a monthly gathering organised by ‘Women’s March For Justice’ to force the authorities to take action over what has become a gross invasion of privacy in daily life. 

Many female protestors are wearing masks out of fear of a backlashCredit:
Chung Sung-jun/GettyNews

“The fear towards spycams that many Korean women have felt has now turned to anger,” said the organisers, who are currently planning their next demonstration.

But as South Korean women revolt, they are also paying the consequences of speaking out against misogyny.

“On the day of the protest there were men who were live streaming the event on the internet by shooting videos of the protestors’ faces … There were people on the internet claiming that they will attack the protests with acid, and these men formed an online live chat groups to organise themselves,” said the group behind the event. 

“There was even a case where a man followed a protester to the house screaming why she was taking part in such protests.”

Known locally as “molka”, the number of spycam crimes reported to police has surged from around 1,100 in 2010 to more than 6,500 last year. 

Soranet, one of the most notorious sites for hidden camera footage of female body parts, had over one million users before it was shut down by the authorities. Many other such sites exist. 

The protest organisers said they had been motivated by the need to prevent more suicides by humiliated women. 

“Many women have been forced into extreme circumstances such as taking their own lives because of the spycam epidemic,” they said.  

At least 40,000 women attended a spycam protest in August Credit:
Jung Hawon/AFP

The police and government had not addressed the problem seriously enough, they argued, which had added to the victims’ trauma. 

“Women have come out onto the streets to survive and to guarantee their own the right to life. We don’t want any more deaths.”

The number of spycam-related suicides is not known, but the problem is so concerning that the police launched a “Stop Downloadkill” campaign last year to warn viewers of illegal spycam footage of the consequences of their actions. 

A replica “spycam porn” video created by the police was uploaded to offending websites, initially showing a woman undressing in a changing room before turning into a ghost. An on-screen message then reads “you could be the one driving her to suicide.” 

Kim Young-mi, a lawyer who has worked on spycam cases, said that the first known incident dated back to 1995 when a department store installed cameras in bathrooms to catch thieves. The practice then became widespread because of South Korea’s rapid technological progress. 

“We have to let people know that it’s a serious crime to inflict harm on other people by taking their images without consent,” she said.  

Jeon Ye-jin, a 23-year-old student who has been taking part in anti-spycam demonstrations, said she lived in constant fear of being caught out by a hidden camera, especially in public toilets. 

“The protest can be a dangerous place where we are under constant threat and harassment,” she said. “We’re making people uncomfortable because that way people will listen to our cause and the issue."