Why Is South Korea Cracking Down On Porn?

Oct 25, 2015 · 8 min read

There’s a crisis of morality unfolding in South Korea — and according to the country’s government, it’s all the Internet’s fault.

A survey conducted by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family earlier this year found that 14% of South Korean teenagers were addicted to either their smartphones or the Internet. Constant and instant access to all types of violent and hypersexualized content online — particularly in games like Starcraft — is often blamed for fostering a harmful environment for the country’s youth. It’s been heavily debated, both in media and the government, if online gaming addictions could even rise to the same level of risk and harm as addiction to drugs or alcohol. Sensational stories about the ways in which the Internet is tearing apart the Korean family abound; perhaps most notable was that of a couple so obsessed with playing video games at their local Internet café that they accidentally let their 3-month old baby starve to death. And that’s to say nothing of what the country’s leaders see as the deeply corrupting influence of pornographic content.

In the face of these threats to traditional family values — an unthinkable reality in a Confucian-based culture where filial piety reigns supreme and keeping up appearances is highly valuedconservative groups and the government are taking action. With the help of a group of concerned citizens who refer to themselves as “cyber-keepers,” the South Korean government has been increasingly relying on legislative muscle to regulate online content.

This approach adds to a relatively long history of enacting laws that govern morality; freedom of speech and the press are only protected by the country’s constitution if it doesn’t “undermine public morals or social ethics.” Until this February, South Koreans could even be convicted and sent to prison for having an extramarital affair, a law that had been on the books for over 60 years.

One of the ways the now-unconstitutional anti-adultery law was enforced was by blocking access to the popular website Ashley Madison, an online dating service for married people looking to partake in affairs — a kind of blanket censorship that echoes tactics now used to regulate online porn.

Despite being one of the world’s most well-connected countries, where an estimated 97% of households had some form of Internet access by 2012, South Korea has some anti-porn laws that would make Rick Santorum proud. Though viewing porn online isn’t completely banned, distribution and possession of hardcore porn have been illegal since 2009, and citizens caught repeatedly trying to view blocked sites run the risk of having their personal computer or smartphone taken away. If a user does take a wrong turn, a website blocked notice will appear in place of the offending site, with the logo of the Korean National Police Agency at the bottom.

Though viewing porn online isn’t completely banned, access is strictly controlled. Users must prove that they are at or over the legal age of consent, which is 19, by going through an age verification page and entering a Resident Registration Number (RRN), the Korean equivalent of an American social security number. (This age verification can be easily duped if a minor knows their parent’s or an older sibling’s RRN.)

Those users who do manage to bypass controls gain access to softcore content that hardly qualifies as XXX raunch. Typically, sites feature nothing more than pictures of half-clothed women in suggestive poses. And even when there are hardcore sex acts onscreen, genitalia are censored, either by a white box or some well-placed pixelation.

porn embed 1
porn embed 1

That said, it should come as no surprise that enterprising young South Koreans have found that it’s fairly simple to find uncensored or unregulated content in all its un-pixelated glory. As one South Korean millennial explained to me in an e-mail, “People generally access porn through proxies or VPNs,” or virtual private networks. VPNs allow users to access the web anonymously and securely by logging into a separate network that’s based outside of the country. They’re easily found with a quick Google (or Naver, the Korean go-to portal) search. When I asked this millennial if he knew of anyone who had gotten into trouble with the law for bypassing these blocks, he added, “Nothing happens if you’re caught, unless you’re waving it in front of the police deliberately.”

Where the rules become truly confusing is in the process of deciding which sites should be blocked and which can stay. In charge of regulating these sites is the Korea Communication Standards Commission (KCSC), an independent agency established in 2008. A group of nine commissioners make the final decisions about what is obscene and what is not, but the group’s decision-making process is somewhat arbitrary and relatively opaque, even to those on the board.

Part of the randomness of the process comes from the sheer volume of content through which these nine individuals must sift. The Internet is a big place, and the stream of content is constant. Because the KCSC’s resources are limited, it relies on volunteers, those aforementioned “cyber-keepers,” to find and report offending sites and materials. This manual filtering system means just one individual has the power to decide something is porn and block it — even if, by certain definitions or opinions, it might not be.

In one notable example of protest against the KCSC’s history of making arbitrary rulings, now-former commissioner Park Kyung-sin, who was appointed to the KCSC by opposition parties, posted a series of non-sexual pictures of male genitalia on his personal blog in 2011. On his blog, he described these photos as fairly biological in nature: “They neither contained any sexual narrative, nor implied sexual intercourse, except for just showing human genitals.” A year later, he was indicted by the KCSC for violating the country’s obscenity laws, and the photos were deleted without giving Park a chance to defend himself, despite the fact that he was sitting on the commission that made the decision to get rid of them at the time.

This lack of clarity, according to Park, is what “allows the KCSC to make politically, socially, and culturally biased judgments, often lacking legal grounds,” and even sites that believe they are following the letter of the law can still be taken down. Last year, the independent watchdog group Freedom House released the report Freedom On The Net 2014, an analysis of South Korea. In an e-mail, Dr. Yenn Lee, the report’s author, cited a recent example in which “the commission blocked the entire website of an adult cartoon service, saying that part of its content was obscene. However, the service provider argued that the content was provided through an age-authentication system in compliance with the law.”

These seemingly arbitrary rulings are becoming ever-more common as South Korea further tightens its already strict and somewhat confusing laws. The crackdown is related to a significant increase in sex crimes over the past five years, but the resulting regulations err on the side of the Orwellian rather than effectively addressing the real issues at play. The sharing of obscene or adult content across peer-to-peer sites has been illegal since April, and in June, the Korean Constitutional Court ruled that adult actors are not allowed to portray minors in videos. And yet, possession of pornographic materials featuring actual minors in South Korea is still, at most, only punishable by a year in prison. (This is unlike Japan, which has arguably the most vibrant porn and fetish industry in the region, and which recently outlawed possession of any pornographic content featuring children, on par with American and European standards.)

In addition to vaguely defined laws that Lee highlights as “a source for potential political abuse,” there is no clear route outlined to file an appeal, making these morality-based judgments difficult to overturn or change. Many citizens have aired concerns about being prosecuted for accidentally watching what is defined as “child porn” even though only consenting adults — or fictional cartoon characters — are featured.

Some of the most outspoken opponents of the law have been cartoonists, whose sexually explicit drawings have been targeted. One Korean artist, going by the DeviantART username Hanguk-dongin, explained in a blog post:

“Although the characters you draw and depict may not be technically underage, if the characters ‘appear as underage kids,’ you can be a criminal who violated the law. It is totally up to the law-enforcing entity’s deliberate judgement.”

And it appears the law is being enforced. According to one report from GlobalVoices, in April 2013, 1,938 people were taken into custody for allegedly violating the Youth Sex Protection Law; of these, only 106 were actually involved with the making or distribution of child porn. In December 2014, the head of the country’s top Internet messaging service, Daum Kakao, was summoned for not doing enough to prevent the sharing of child porn on the service, though few other details were given.

This strict, and uneven, enforcement is putting pressure on creators to make content that’s appropriate, even if it’s far from pornography — let alone child porn. Director Jeon Kyu-hwan, who holds the dubious title of making the most movies with a rating of “inappropriate for screening” by the Korea Media Rating Board, made what the Korea Herald described as a “vintage nude action film” called The Angry Painter. In an interview with the newspaper, Jeon explained that he preempted the board’s standards and self-censored his work. “Look, I made a film that was meant for adults. And there’s nothing that I thought was inappropriate for adults to watch. But I knew it was going to be a problem, so I cut out and blurred scenes before the rating . . . It’s heartbreaking.”

porn embed 2
porn embed 2

These conflicting standards and complicated online freedoms are hardly limited to South Korea; in fact, it’s one of the most liberated countries in the region. In its World Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders ranked South Korea at 60th, slightly ahead of Japan at 61, and far ahead of China, which came in at 176 out of 180 in terms of press freedom. Other Asian Tigers with which Korea is often grouped — Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan — all have similarly strict attitudes toward pornography. It is illegal to publicly display porn in Taiwan and Hong Kong, and an offense to possess pornographic material in Singapore.

In the South Korean system, at least, it seems that there’s room for hope, with a democratic system that can be used to push for change. Despite its lack of a formal appeal process, the KCSC can be swayed in the court of public opinion, as demonstrated by the enaction of many of these rules in the first place. In the case of the adult cartoon website that was taken down earlier this year, Lee explained that, “Having faced a public furor, the commission withdrew the shutdown order.”

These regulations are often justified as measures to protect minors from inappropriate and obscene content, and though President Park Geun-hye has not gone as far as her predecessor Lee Myung-bak — who once declared Internet porn “one cause inciting sex crimes” — the current laws and regulations create a restrictive online environment for all users, including consenting adults. The wholesale censorship of sexual content, and regular association of porn with truly disturbing crimes like rape and child molestation, also perpetuates the culture’s negative perceptions of sex.

As long as morality is tied to Internet use, and porn is seen as perverted, it’s unlikely that Koreans will be able to get their fap on without fear of prosecution.

The Establishment

The conversation is much more interesting when everyone has a voice. Media funded and run by women; new content daily.

Maxine Builder

Written by

Staff Writer, New York Magazine’s The Strategist

The Establishment

The conversation is much more interesting when everyone has a voice. Media funded and run by women; new content daily.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade