SEOUL, South Korea — He preyed on young women looking for high-paying jobs through social media platforms. He lured them into making sexually explicit video clips, promising big payouts. Then, prosecutors said, once he got ahold of the compromising images, he used them as blackmail.
On Thursday, Cho Joo-bin, the South Korean mastermind of a scheme luring young women into making videos that he sold online through encrypted chat rooms, was sentenced to 40 years in prison.
The criminal acts by Mr. Cho “inflicted irreparable damage on the victims,” Judge Lee Hyun-woo of the Seoul Central District Court said in handing down the sentence. Prosecutors had asked the court to send Mr. Cho to prison for life for crimes they called “unprecedented” in the country.
The case drew outrage for its cruelty against young women — eight of his victims were minors. It came amid a broader conversation over the treatment of women in South Korea and helped fuel a nascent #MeToo movement in the country. It also added to the scrutiny of technology’s role in such crimes: It was the first time that the South Korean police had uncovered an organized crime ring that made such footage and sold it online, using cryptocurrency.
Women’s rights advocates have said that the local courts’ light punishments for sexual crimes have helped pornographic file-sharing websites proliferate in the country. On Thursday, some gathered in front of the courthouse to demand the maximum punishment for Mr. Cho and his accomplices.
“The judiciary should realize that its soft-glove punishment has been responsible for helping sexual exploitation crimes grow in large scale,” the advocates said in a statement that was read aloud during the rally. “These online sexual exploitation sites disappear and then reappear repeatedly, and we should not let our guard down until the perpetrators face severe punishment.”
Before he was linked to the chat room scheme, Mr. Cho was the editor of the newspaper at a vocational college in Incheon, west of Seoul. He then became the ringleader of a group of South Korean men who ran the clandestine online chat rooms to share and trade in sexually explicit footage. His accomplices were in their 20s and even teenagers.
Prosecutors said that between May 2019 and February this year, Mr. Cho exploited 17 female victims for profit, circulating the footage in members-only chat rooms that he operated under an alias, “The Doc,” on Telegram, an encrypted messaging service popular in South Korea, prosecutors said.
He used the explicit images and personal data to blackmail the women, threatening to release the clips online or to their friends and relatives unless the victims supplied increasingly dehumanizing and violent footage, often tailor-made for customers. Mr. Cho once forced a 15-year-old girl to meet a paid customer to perform sex acts, prosecutors said.
The police eventually tracked Mr. Cho down, and when he was arrested in March, they kept his identity from the public, in its usual policy of protecting criminal suspects’ identities to respect their rights and that of their relatives. But millions of South Koreans joined an online petition asking the government to reveal his name and image and to identify all customers of online chat rooms operated by Mr. Cho and others like him.
Eventually, the police revealed his name and allowed news outlets to take pictures of him, saying that they had made an exception because he had been charged with particularly heinous crimes.
After he was arrested, Mr. Cho told reporters, “Thank you for stopping my life as a devil that I could not stop.” During his trial, he admitted to most of the charges but denied blackmailing the women. He has a week to appeal Thursday’s ruling.
Several customers have turned themselves in to the police, and one killed himself, according to local news reports. In August, a 26-year-old man was sentenced to two years in prison on charges of gaining access to the personal information on women in a database while he worked in a government office that he then sold to Mr. Cho. On Thursday, three of Mr. Cho’s accomplices received sentences of between five and 15 years in prison. Two customers who paid to watch the explicit footage were sentenced to eight and seven years in prison.
In recent years, the South Korean police began cracking down on sexually explicit file-sharing websites as part of international efforts to fight child pornography. They said they soon realized that much of the illegal trade in pornography was migrating to online chat rooms on messaging services like Telegram. They have since arrested dozens of people involved in the operations. This month, a 38-year-old former office worker was sentenced to seven years in prison on charges of running similar chat rooms under the alias “The Watchman.”
Amid conversations around the #MeToo movement, the widely popular mayor of Seoul, Park Won-soon, killed himself in July after one of his secretaries went to the police, accusing him of sexual harassment.
In 2017, South Korea revised laws to strengthen punishment for spycam pornography — the use of tiny, hidden cameras to film female victims, often in public bathrooms. After Mr. Cho’s case made headlines, President Moon Jae-in promised a full investigation and stern punishment against operators and customers of the online chat rooms.
His government also promised to fight online sexual crimes in general, including “deep-fake” pornography and sexually explicit footage involving minors and sex scenes distributed without consent. Prosecutors have vowed to seek the maximum punishment — life imprisonment — for serious offenders, especially those who sexually exploit minors.
But women’s rights advocates say they still face an uphill battle.
On Thursday, another district court in Seoul sentenced a man in his 30s to four years in prison for selling sexually explicit video clips online, including ones in which the faces of female K-pop stars were digitally attached to the bodies of women engaged in sex acts.
A 24-year-old man named Son Jong-woo walked out of prison in April after completing an 18-month sentence for running one of the world’s biggest child pornography websites on the dark web.
Another man, named Cho Doo-soon, is scheduled to leave prison next month after serving 12 years for violently raping an 8-year-old girl.