STR/AFP/EAST NEWS
STR/AFP/EAST NEWS

SOCIETY / 14:53,

My life is not your porn

Tens of thousands of Korean women have hit the streets to protest an epidemic of voyeurism. Men have been using microscopic cameras to record them on a massive scale

The protests have been ongoing since May 19 of this year. About 12,000 women gathered that Saturday near the Hyehwa metro station in Seoul, chanting "We aren't pornographic objects for you." Most of them were dressed in red clothes, a symbol of anger in Korean culture.

The photo above shows a demonstration against male voyeurism involving 60,000 women in Seoul on July 7, 2018

The women were outraged at men and at the police. In recent months, male voyeurs have been setting up miniature cameras in public spaces on a massive scale, recording women using toilets, changing rooms and traveling on the metro. The overwhelming majority of police officers, in turn, have made no effort to understand the victims. Instead of offering proper assistance, they have been treating their complaints as nothing more than self-indulgence. 

In Korean, this phenomenon is known as molka. The word comes from the Korean term for hidden camera – mollae camera. As technology advances – and we're talking about South Korea, after all, the homeland of Samsung and the fastest internet on the planet – devices keep getting smaller to the point that a camera can be placed in a button or a screw, on the tip of a shoe, under a watch face, in a mirror, in a pack of cigarettes, in a bottle of water, in eyeglasses, in a toilet paper dispenser or even in a toilet bowl.

EUROPICS/EAST NEWS

A CAMERA HIDDEN IN A PAIR OF SANDALS enables Korean voyeurs to look up the dresses of women in a crowd.

EUROPICS/EAST NEWS

Video recordings can be made anywhere, at any angle, in the dark and, most importantly, while allowing the perpetrators to remain completely invisible. This is something that Korean women have had to get used to. And after several years of this epidemic, they now know that when standing in front of a man on an escalator, it's better to hold their purses behind them. 

The flashpoint that first brought women onto the streets was a trial involving a female student from Hongik University. The young girl – called Ahn in the media – secretly recorded a naked male model in a drawing class. She bragged about this online and was arrested a few days later. 

She was shown on-camera with a mask covering her face. Women were outraged: while they were being secretly recorded en masse, the police had shown no interest whatsoever. This is backed up by statistics. Between 2012 and 2017, 98 percent of the more than 16,000 people arrested for make illegal recordings were men, while 84 percent of the 26,000 victims of molka were women.

Peeping Toms with impunity

The penalty for molka is a fine of between $4,500 and $27,000 and three to five years in prison. But for someone to be convicted, there must first be evidence. In practice, to prove that molka has taken place, the victim must search through tens of thousands of pornographic or quasi-pornographic recordings on her own to find images of herself. 

Since these voyeurs are interested in specific body parts, the victim must identify the relevant portions of her own body, show them to the police and go through the entire process without any psychological support. In most cases, molka goes unpunished, and Korean women are unwilling to accept this any longer.

CEN/EAST NEWS

MOLKA IS NOT JUST A KOREAN PROBLEM. Last November at a sports center in Dorsten, Germany, someone hid two microscopic cameras in a bottle of shower gel.

CEN/EAST NEWS

Some 30,000 people took part in the second march on June 9, and this number doubled to 60,000 for the third march on July 7, making the anti-molka protests the largest demonstrations by women in the country's history. 

Despite President Moon Jae-in’s promise between the demonstrations to toughen penalties and his admission that illegal cameras had become a part of everyday life, and even after five government ministries had organized a joint press conference on the problem, demonstrators accused the government of tolerating sex-related offenses and called the country – officially the Republic of Korea – the Republic of Misogyny.

The molka law

Experts say that the molka phenomenon shows that the criminal code needs changing to catch up with reality. According to the law specifying what qualifies as a sex-related offense, photos and video recordings of a clothed individual do not overstep the line of what is considered acceptable. Since women's faces are rarely shown, there is no easy way for them to prove that they have been victims of molka. 

Judges must be convinced in case after case that the objectification of women is one step down the path of completely stripping them of respect, which leads to societal breakdown. Women are horrified by the fact that they can be recorded at any time and in any situation, thus becoming the object of someone's unhealthy arousal.

Molka has been likened to the public health threat that followed the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster in March 2011. Invisible radiation could be anywhere, causing serious harm to anyone who accidentally got in its way.

AKG IMAGES/EAST NEWS

ACCORDING TO JAPANESE LEGEND, KUME SENNIN WAS A HERMIT and martial-arts master who could levitate. He sometimes used his ability to watch women as they bathed, as can be seen in the engraving above, from the late 17th century. The spirit of Kume Sennin is alive and well in modern Japan. Several years ago, smartphone manufacturers made it impossible to silence the sound of the camera shutter due to the many cases of women being secretly photographed and filmed in places like crowded subway cars.

AKG IMAGES/EAST NEWS

Molka is also symptomatic of a much broader social problem. 

The social position of women in Korea remains very low (as in many other Asian countries). According to OECD statistics for 2017, the earnings of Korean women are only 63 percent those of men in the same positions – the largest discrepancy in any developed country. Nearly half (44 percent) of Korean women are not employed, and only 10 percent of managerial positions are occupied by women. Surveys from two years ago show that half of Korean men admit to having paid for sex. 

What’s behind this redrawing of the borders of social decency in Korea? The change didn't happen overnight, and the causes were myriad.

The difficult life of a Korean man

South Korea is not just a difficult country for women. It's also hard on children, who are forced to study constantly starting in elementary school. The pressure to get good grades is overwhelming. The prestigious universities and top corporations are inflexible: they accept only the best. Those who fall behind at an early stage in life won't be able to catch up later. 

Exhausted by years of intense study, young people graduate and become corporate soldiers. Their family comes second and for all intents and purposes doesn’t even exist outside the home. Bosses not only require overtime, but they also demand that employees take part in daily business dinners called hoesik, where they drink themselves into oblivion and then repeat the process the next day. 

Social norms and lifestyles are changing rapidly. A society based on Confucian values requiring loyalty to one's parents and respect for men has undergone an extremely rapid transformation of its economic status. Following the Korean War (1950-1953), South Korea was a third-world country. Only two decades later – thanks to the economic reforms of President Park Chung-hee, who ruled South Korea as a dictator from 1961 to 1979 – the country had become one of the Asian tigers. This transformation has been called the Miracle on the Han River. Three decades later, Samsung and Hyundai have become major global brands. 

South Korea is one of only a few places in the world to experience such a dizzying pace of development. 

Young people brought up in schools where corporal punishment and teacher harassment was the norm began watching Western television programs, which showed a completely different way of life. There was no paranoia about spies from the North, who could be lurking around every corner. Young people went on dates without parental consent, and common-sense, arranged marriages were unheard-of. 

South Koreans also wanted to experience such emotions, but didn't know how handle their newfound freedom.

YAO QILIN XINHUA/EYEVINE/EAST NEWS

KOREAN WOMEN WERE USED AS SEX SLAVES BY JAPANESE SOLDIERS during World War II. They were known euphemistically as comfort women. Last summer, figurines of comfort women were placed in five buses in Seoul to remind people about what was done to them.

YAO QILIN XINHUA/EYEVINE/EAST NEWS

Their first attempts were innocent. The shy and naive Korean approach to dating is called sogaeting: sogae meaning to introduce oneself, with the "ting" ending borrowed from the English word "dating." This innocence became a new tenet of South Korean culture and became associated with the country in other parts of the world through films and television. 

The Japanese went wild about the South Korean TV series “Winter Sonata,” and Japanese women consider the main character to be a model of masculinity. Korean men were seen as caring, friendly and good-natured. These soap operas were successfully exported even to completely different cultures in Latin America, Africa and the Far East. They promoted respect, kindness and values that people anywhere could agree with. 

However, these models of what a man should be, admired the world over, diverge sharply from the reality at home. Perhaps there is a clue in the words of British spy novelist Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, who claimed that Koreans were the cruelest people in the world.

Han, a Korean type of anger

It's impossible to talk about Koreans without discussing the issue of their deeply rooted anger, known as han, a word that means rage and the inability to get revenge for harm that has been suffered. The resulting disease has been officially recognized as a syndrome of Korean culture. Han is a part of the Korean soul that isn’t revealed in maudlin TV shows. 

How this anger is expressed is determined by one's social status. Koreans like to say that success in life depends on one's birth. You can come into the world either in a rich family (with a golden spoon in your mouth, as they say in Korea) or “dirty,” which means to have bad luck. In the latter case, your lot is to remain poor as your parents forever and to suppress your anger at this fate for the rest of your life. 

If a rich man flies into a fit of rage, the results can be catastrophic. There are examples galore, since South Korean companies are famous for their scandals. The families that run these companies cover for one another and allow the bosses’ tantrums to go unpunished. 

For example, the two daughters of the owner of Korean Air landed on the front pages of the country’s newspapers after one threw a package of nuts at a flight attendant and the other threw a glass at employees of an advertising agency. The reasons were trivial, but their rage was unrestrained.

JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/EAST NEWS

CHO HYUN-AH, THE DAUGHTER OF THE OWNER OF KOREAN AIR, surrounded by journalists in front of a Seoul court house, where she was on trial for throwing nuts at a flight attendant, December 2014.

JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/EAST NEWS

In South Korea, this sort of behavior is called gapjil. Older people unload on the young with impunity, a tradition that, like in the military, is maintained by a combination of Confucian principles of subordination to one's elders and the corrupt structures of family-owned companies known as chaebols. 

Gapjil goes hand in hand with another harmful phenomenon called kkondae, which refers to members of the older generation who assume they know everything better. A conceited father or CEO will manifest his kkondae, and his frustrated children or subordinates are forced to endure his fits of rage. 

To make things even more difficult, one of the phrases you frequently hear in the country is "ppalli, ppalli," meaning "hurry up, hurry up." Koreans are constantly being forced to hurry up – on the street, at work and even in their free time. 

A few years ago, the government spent millions of dollars on a campaign promoting hiking in the mountains, because it turned out that more and more people were literally running to mountaintops, taking a photo and running back to work. In 2016, a park in Seoul played host to a competition in doing nothing. The event was organized to encourage people to take a break.

Video-game nymphets

All these peculiar national features foster something even more bizarre than molka. 

The accumulation of obstacles hindering young people, the lack of prospects for a peaceful life, pressure from family and superiors for success and good results, and the schizophrenia that exists between saccharine pop culture and real life have all created dissonance, stress and anger. Some men – especially those who have been rejected or are less popular with friends or the opposite sex – have found a new outlet for their frustration. 

The economic crisis that hit Korea in 1997 had serious social consequences. Thousands of men lost not only their jobs but their honor, because they were unable to provide for their families. They finally had time to spend at home, but they barely knew their wives and children – after all, a job at a Korean corporation is literally all-consuming. So their preference was to go out rather than stay at home with their families.

ASIAWIRE/@U__666/EAST NEWS

A JAPANESE WOMAN SPENT $70,000 on plastic surgery and props to make herself look like a character from a video game.

ASIAWIRE/@U__666/EAST NEWS

The era of post-crisis unemployment coincided with the growing popularity of the internet and internet cafes. Men discovered video games, the most popular of which was Starcraft 2. Having caught the bug, they later switched to so-called MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role-playing games), in which players take on different roles and compete in a virtual world. 

These games were based on stories from Korean culture and were eye-catching at the same time, allowing men to play the characters of scantily clad female superheroes. 

Women became virtual figures who could be controlled on the screen, a projection of male fantasies completely detached from reality. Indestructible, capable of enduring even the greatest humiliation – even a humiliation like molka. 

The phenomenon of widespread voyeurism and the objectification of women calls into question the popular Western description of Korea as the “Land of Morning Calm.” The new generation calls it “Hell Joseon,” or “hell on earth.” Joseon was the name of the most accomplished royal dynasty in the country's history.

AP/EAST NEWS
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