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Voyeurism still tricky to stamp out in South Korea

The number of sex crimes involving the taking of intrusive pictures of body parts increased dramatically in South Korea between 2005 and 2014, but the ambiguity of current laws make it tricky to crack down on, according to the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office Monday.

In 2014, a total of 6,735 cases of voyeurism crimes were reported, which was 19.8 times higher than in 2005, at 341.

Also, 24.1 percent of all sex crime perpetrators caught in 2014 were those who illicitly took pictures of others, compared to 3 percent in 2005, the prosecutors said.

According to Article 13 of the Act on Special Cases Concerning the Punishment of Sexual Crimes, a person “who takes pictures of another person’s body, which may cause any sexual stimulus or shame, against the latter’s will by using a camera or other similar mechanism” can be punished by imprisonment of not more than five years or by a fine not exceeding 10 million won ($8,370). Those who sell, distribute, lease or openly screen such pictures can also face the same punishment.
Various types of illegal hidden cameras confiscated by police in Seoul last year Yonhap
Various types of illegal hidden cameras confiscated by police in Seoul last year Yonhap

The court currently reviews the following when making rulings: the way the victim was dressed when he or she was violated; the place the violation took place; camera angles used for photographs; and whether or not the photograph captures specific body parts.

Yet the specific crime is difficult to curb mostly because the subject of the violation is often unware of the harassment, and therefore feels no “sexual shame.” Also, many smartphone applications, including those that enable users to take pictures without a shutter sound, or zoom in, make it easier for voyeurs to commit the crime, prosecutors said.

There also has been debate as to what kind of photographs cause sexual stimulus or shame.

On Sunday, the Supreme Court ruled that a man in his 20s who had been charged with following a female stranger and taking pictures of her in an elevator as not guilty.

The court explained that the woman wasn’t wearing any “revealing” clothes at the time, and the photograph, which captured the upper body of the woman without her face, can’t be seen as “sexual,” as it did not zoom into any specific body parts.

However, the woman testified at the court that she was scared and felt sexually harassed because of the man’s behavior. She said she noticed him taking pictures of her body without her consent and reported him to the police the next day after checking security video footage.

In November, a 36-year-old man received a “not guilty” verdict for taking a total of 16 pictures containing different women’s full bodies, rather than specific body parts such as breasts, at a subway station in Anyang, Gyeonggi Province. But he was sentenced to eight months in prison with two years of probation for 42 other pictures he took, all of which captured bare legs of women in the subway in the summer.

In explaining its decision, the Seoul Northern District Court said it was illogical to interpret a woman in her summer clothes as constituting a “body that may cause any sexual stimulus,” as more women choose to dress casually and less conservatively today.

Lee Soo-yeon, a researcher at the Korean Women’s Development, argued that the laws should expand the definition to acknowledge all forms of voyeurism as stalking.

“With the current laws on the punishment of sexual crimes, it is hard to punish voyeurism offenders. But taking pictures of someone without the person’s consent is just wrong,” she told The Korea Herald.

“It would be more efficient if the law acknowledges the specific behavior as stalking (without the ambiguous burden of proving the sexual intent or shame) and make it punishable.”

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Gender Equality was criticized during a National Assembly inspection last year for its campaign ad against sexual harassment using smart devices in public transportation.

The ad encouraged women not to wear miniskirts, or to cover their legs when they do, when riding the subway or climbing the stairs at stations -- instead of discouraging possible offenders from committing the crime.

Rep. Lim Su-kyung from the then-New Politics Alliance for Democracy, now The Minjoo Party of Korea, said at the audit, “Such ads are based on the notion that when a woman gets sexually harassed, she must have done something to deserve it.”

By Claire Lee (dyc@heraldcorp.com)
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