‘Women are hostages’: Rallying against the rape cartel in South Korea

Elite South Korean men have been outed as violent sexual exploiters, but regular men need to be accountable for their role in rape culture too.

An online poster advertising the “Rally against the Rape Cartel” held on May 19, 2019

Recent headlines in the wake of the Burning Sun scandal may lead you to believe that South Korea is comprised of two very different worlds: one world, where prestigious men are allowed to get away with anything they desire, and another world of the everyday man. While it is true that male celebrities and powerful men are committing horrendous crimes against women and avoiding punishment, they aren’t acting alone. And certainly “regular men” are no less guilty.

In April, MBC’s Straight, a South Korean news show, revealed that a number of clubs in Gangnam — the so-called “Beverly Hills of Seoul” — had been hosting gang-rape parties for their VVIP members, using teams of what they referred to as “incinerators” to clean up the aftermath. Burning Sun is now known to be one of the nightclubs that organized these kinds of parties. But they weren’t the only ones. Clubs like Burning Sun rented flats in residential or commercial buildings where rich male customers could pay to sexually and physically abuse women overnight. The “incinerators” — or clean-up men — would come in the morning to remove blood stains and burn all evidence of violence. Sometimes doctors would be called to the flats at night to stop abused women from bleeding or to carry out blood transfusions. Gruesome acts were recorded without victims’ consent, but no one knows where the videos ended up. An ex-incinerator, a club staff member, and a VVIP client have all confirmed that such practices took place, until recently.

Men and mainstream media have been quick — perhaps too quick — to condemn this violence and to separate themselves from the perpetrators. They blame rich, famous, powerful men for rape culture, as though not-so-rich, not-so-famous, not-so-powerful men do not abuse and exploit women. However, we Korean feminists would argue this is not the case. The dangerous level of misogyny seen among ordinary Korean men is what enables and supports such crimes.

Korea’s Great Gatsby

The Burning Sun club scandal of 2018 began with the Great Seungri. The 28-year-old Kpop megastar Seungri boasts more Twitter followers than South Korean President Moon Jae-in. He first gained fame as a member of the Korean boy band, Big Bang, one of “music’s biggest bands of the last decade.” His various business ventures — a dance academy, ramen noodle franchise, and, of course, the Burning Sun nightclub — were also met with massive success. Famous for throwing lavish parties, Seungri was called “Korea’s Great Gatsby.” Indeed, he was in the midst of his first solo concert tour — named “The Great Seungri” — in six Asian countries when the fall came, just like in the 1920s novel. Suddenly, Seungri was enmeshed in one of the worst celebrity scandals in South Korean history.

Gang-rape facilities and clean-up services are just a tip of an iceberg. What happened in the club itself is more horrifying. Rape drugs are used to victimize women all around the world, but, in this case, club staff played an active role in providing drugged women to big-name guests with the oversight of the corrupt Korean police. Leaked chats between several of the club’s merchandisers (known as MDs), who were responsible for procuring drugged women for sexual abuse, provide a glimpse into the club’s everyday business practices:

MD 1: “The VIP room is looking for a mulge.”

MD 2: “Okay, I will look for one”

MD 1: “Hurry up and help me find one”

MD 1: “We don’t need one anymore, just find someone who looks out of it”

MD 2: “I’ll look for a snail then”

MD 1: “Help me hit a home run”

The club’s managers casually try to secure a “mulge” (their term for attractive female guests) to introduce to customers in the VIP room. A mulge is not a paid hostess or a prostitute, although managers treat her as such. She is just someone who walks into the club maybe to have fun and dance. Then, according to the leaked chats, the VIPs appear to change their minds about wanting a conscious victim, and instead they request a “snail,” Korean slang for an unconscious woman who is easy prey for sex. Notably, the word “mulge” sounds similar to the word “seal” in Korean. Whether snails or seals, female guests are likened to non-human beings that can be delivered on demand. The managers even provide patrons with date rape drugs to be used on mulges.

The leaked chats were not personal conversations between a couple of rogue colleagues, either. Dispatch, the media outlet that got the scoop, reported that “all the staff shared what was happening at the club in real-time” and suggested Seungri was aware of all of it. News reports imply the young owner wouldn’t have been worried about pimping activity at his club. According to cable channel SBS funE, Seungri himself procured women to be victimized by his business clients. In fact, the pop star and his celebrity friends allegedly committed an endless list of crimes against women — sexual assault of unknowingly drugged women, the sharing of secretly filmed sexual videos with each other, commercial sexual exploitation, you name it.

Perhaps the comprehensiveness of these men’s crimes is best captured in their own words. They conspired to victimize women on KakaoTalk, the biggest mobile messaging app in Korea, and these conversations have been the main source of evidence in the scandal. In a KakaoTalk conversation between Seungri and other male stars, the singer Jung Joon Young proposed, possibly as a joke, they “all meet women online, go to a strip bar, and rape them in cars.” Another participant answered plainly, “You know we already do stuff like that in real life.” He added:

“This [what we do in real life] is like a movie. Think about it for five minutes. We just don’t murder anyone. A lot of bastards have gone to jail for that.”

“Room salons” in Korean cinema, and in real life

The comparison to movies is notable. The editors of the feminist film magazine SECOND point out that in the Korean movie industry, “It has become a cliche to portray sexual violence against women and room salons whenever men come together to wield their power, and these portrayals do not seem like cultural criticism anymore.” Powerful male characters, whether they are chaebol executives, public prosecutors, lawyers, or politicians, tend to choose karaoke-escort bars, called room salons, as venues for collusion, and use violence against women as a bonding ritual. The 2015 film, Inside Men — the highest grossing X-rated film in South Korea — is one of many that show lewd scenes set in “private lounges furnished with a chorus line of hostesses.” The directors may think they are fearlessly criticizing the hidden world of the elite, but the scenes usually appear indistinguishable from pornography. These scenes might have been what these men were referencing on KakaoTalk.

Two other scandals have recently reemerged in South Korean media because they are being reconsidered for prosecution. Both cases could easily be scripts for Korean movies. After continuously being pressured by her entertainment agency to provide sexual favours to big shots in the industry, actress Jang Ja Yeon took her own life in 2009. None of the heavyweights Jang pointed out as perpetrators in her suicide letter have been punished, fueling suspicion that the men put pressure on prosecutors. The Committee of Past Affairs, newly launched to rectify mistakes in juridical decision-making, reopened the contentious case. The Committee also decided to reinvestigate a case wherein former Deputy Justice Minister Kim Hak-eui is accused of engaging in sexual bribery. Between January 2007 and February 2008, land developer Yoon Jung-cheon allegedly invited Kim to his villa several times for orgies, in an attempt to win his favour. Acquaintances of the Justice Minister and experts alike agree that Kim’s face is recognizable in a leaked video of the party, but prosecutors have not filed any charges against him. A woman interviewed on MBC’s PD Notebook alleged that Yoon drugged her and taped her being raped in order to pressure her to have sex with Kim at the party, which she eventually did out of fear he would show the tape to her family, which she said Yoon did eventually do, when she complained to him about what had happened.

Male hypocrisy and toxic masculinity

These incidents have ignited public rage in Korea among women and men alike. However, as feminists, when a male broadcaster like Kim Uh Joon pledges to “keep an eye” on Jang’s case on his show, we are suspicious. This is the same person who urged women to send bikinied pictures to cheer up a jailed politician, and who has claimed the #MeToo movement can be utilized by political conservatives to “cause division among President Moon supporters.” Are these men really above this behaviour themselves? Put in the same situation, and believing they would get away with it, what would they do?

The truth is that male stars do not perpetuate rape culture on their own. Average Korean men also utilize sexual violence as a means of amusement and male bonding. Their conversations are often no better.

In a leaked chat room conversation among male journalists, participants requested copies of the illegal footage taken of drugged women in the Burning Sun club, and of women at the orgies organized by Kim Hak-eui. In response, a reporter uploaded videos for his industry colleagues. They thanked him, saying “love ya” and wowed at the videos like they would at pornographic clips. When one journalist shared a victim’s photo, others commented that she was “bangable” and looked like an “ace hooker.” They then posted reviews of brothels, recommending certain establishments to each other.

Rape culture is widespread in South Korea. In 2015, Kookmin University suspended two male students and placed three students on probation after their online group chats were publicized. The chat room, consisting of 32 male university soccer club members, was filled with abusive, sexualized discussions of their female classmates, similar to the Warwick University scandal. Female students were likened to “comfort women,” reduced to “boobs,” and compared to “chewed out gum” when sexually active. One male student suggested raping a girl with a plastic bag on her head, because her face was “distasteful.” Similar group conversations have been revealed at other prestigious Korean universities, namely Korea University and Seoul National University. Male students enrolled at Korea University in a KakaoTalk chat room discussed ways to “fuck” incoming freshman students, which included getting the young women drunk to the point of unconsciousness. It was discovered that some of these young men had been so-called “sexual equality promoters” during the two-day orientation session for freshmen.

“Comfort women” as rape victims past and present

Korea lives with the painful history of allowing thousands of its female citizens to be taken away by colonial Japan to become sex slaves for soldiers during World War II. After the war, Korean society shamed victims for no longer being virgins, and euphemistically called them “comfort women,” so they felt too ashamed to talk about their agonizing experiences. Only 40 years later, on August 14, 1991, did one courageous victim, Kim Hak-sun, finally come forward, enabling other survivors to follow suit. Ever since, they have been fighting to get the acknowledgement and sincere apology they deserve from the Japanese government. On the back of recent feminist waves, their lives and struggles have been made into a number of movies, including Spirits’ Homecoming and Herstory. However, according to reports, men in online communities like DC Inside and Ilbe have extracted sexual abuse scenes from these movies to consume and share as pornography compilations. A male member of Seungri’s chat room described one of his victims as being promiscuous like a “comfort woman,” as did the above-mentioned Kookmin University student.

Comfort woman statue outside Japanese embassy in Seoul, October 2012 (Image: Flickr/duggadugdug)

Male celebrities, university students, and members of the Korean public alike seem to see “comfort women” as fodder for their sadistic and sexual fantasies. Men’s sexual exploitation of women 80 years ago is linked to their treatment of women today. The “comfort women” didn’t result from war but, rather, from the prostitution that existed in “peacetime” beforehand. The “comfort women” wartime scheme in the 1930s and 1940s set a new standard for men’s sexual exploitation of women, but this standard comes close to being met, now, in peacetime, by men all over the world, including Korean men inside the Burning Sun club.

Rape and sexual exploitation as men’s fun and games

The fact that sex, sexual violence, and prostitution exist on a continuum in men’s sexual worlds shows that sex, for these men, is not just about seeking pleasure but is closely connected to power. Men know what rape is, but engage anyway.

When one member of the Burning Sun club chat room uploaded a video bragging about having had “sex” with a woman after drugging her, another member piped up, saying, “That’s rape.” But he quickly added a smiley emoticon after the comment. The connection between rape and the sex trade is also evident on websites where men share spycam videos. These websites have banners advertising prostitution businesses. In turn, websites where men share reviews and tips on prostitution venues have spycam videos on their bulletin boards.

In 2017, South Korean media revealed that naked pictures of a prostituted woman in her 70s had been uploaded to an infamous website called Ilbe. The man who humiliated this impoverished elderly woman by posting pictures of her genitals on a public website was arrested. He turned out to be working for a civil office in Seoul. The men who consumed this imagery did not think about the kind of life a 74-year-old woman born in a colonized country and who grew up through the Korean War lived, or how she is surviving in her old age now. Rather, they were entertained by seeing an elderly person, who is supposed to be especially respected in an Asian society like Korea, forced to make a living being sexually exploited through prostitution. Although it is illegal to pay for for sex in Korea, authorities do not thoroughly enforce the law, and many brothel districts still operate illegally. Pimps are criminalized and fined in South Korea, but this has little effect, as pimps simply pay the fines, considering this a tax on doing business, and keep operating their enterprises.

One of the biggest websites for sharing reviews of prostituted women in South Korea, War of Night, has 20,000 visitors a day and advertises 2,000 prostitution establishments such as room salons, massage parlours, and brothels. Men share information on this site, and others like it, about which establishment has “hotter girls” or “better services,” and offer advice to one another about how to avoid being busted by police. Their legal advice bulletin board introduces users to lawyers specializing in defending prostitution-related offences.

Men becoming pornographers in the digital age

In South Korea, the way women bond online is very different from the way men do. The spycam issue became central to women’s activism in the country as a result of Korean women sharing stories about their sexual relationships with Korean men in women-only, anonymous online communities, like Megalia. When a few women started speaking about their experiences, which they’d kept secret even from close friends, other women began talking about theirs as well. The experiences were often similar. Many Korean women talked about their boyfriends and husbands asking them to have sex without condoms, or to engage in anal sex or “deep throating.” Women also shared that men pressure them into filming sexual acts, something women often “agree” to on the basis that “this will remain just between us — no one else will see it.” In intimate relationships, these kinds of demands are justified in the name of “love,” but the moment a woman gives her “consent,” she becomes her partner’s hostage. Once women started sharing their experiences amongst each other, they realized how common their stories were.

In the 1994 book, Loving to Survive, recently translated and published in Korea, Dee Graham interprets men’s practice of sharing their sex acts. She writes:

“When men get together to talk about ‘fucking’ women, ‘scoring,’ or their sexual conquests, they are communicating to one another that, although they have sex with women, their emotional bonds are with one another. They are saying to their male companions, ‘You are more important to me than the woman with whom I had sex.’ (Perhaps this is why the individual females with whom men have sex are not that important to many of them.) They are also communicating that their sexual relations with women are for the purpose of exploitation. Such talk by men puts male listeners in the sex act with the male speaker and the woman. The companions are invisible, but they are there with the man doing the ‘fucking,’ sharing in his victory of the exploitation of a woman, the men’s bonds strengthened by the sharing, united in their subjugation of femaleness.”

Graham’s analysis contextualizes many sex crimes occurring today. The practice of men bonding through the sexual exploitation of women has only intensified through online spaces. Men use the internet to collaborate with each other in sexually exploiting women, in order to enhance their bonds of fellowship. This online collaboration sometimes spills out into the real world, such as in the case of Japanese torture pornography production, wherein groups of men collaborate in fantasizing about sexual violence, then meet in the real world to perpetrate these acts. Male customers meet on internet chat forums set up by pornography companies, and plan the sexual abuses they perpetrate against women on pornography filming sets in real life.

Sexual terrorism against all women

If sex, sexual violence, and sexual exploitation are all connected in men’s worlds, women’s responses to these matters also have to be connected. In this respect, the growing “4B movement” among young women in Korea — which refers to the four “Bs,” boycotting dating, sex, marriage, and child-bearing — is not so radical.

When so many men’s sexuality is rooted in viewing women as sexual objects and when they think degrading acts equal “hotter” sex, refraining from getting sexually involved with these men is a logical, sensible way of protecting oneself. In 1983, in a speech she gave to men involved in the civil rights movement, Andrea Dworkin said “I want a twenty-four-hour truce during which there is no rape.” She declared that equality cannot begin before the day when not one woman is raped. She asked these men to go and organize a truce by stopping their side from raping women for one day. Living through the same terrors of rape culture that Dworkin described more than 30 years ago, some Korean women are avowing not to bond with the people who have waged war against them. Last year, six women-only rallies against spycam pornography brought a total of 350,000 women to the streets of Seoul, paving the way for the rally against rape drug crime in March this year. In May 2019, after the court dismissed an arrest warrant request against Seungri, despite evidence of his involvement in procuring women for prostitution and rape, a crowd of 1,000 women took to the streets to rally against the “rape cartel.”

Women’s war of resistance against sexual terrorism in South Korea is ongoing, and will continue so long as men continue to abuse women.

Left to right: Jihye Kuk, Caroline Norma, Hyejung Park, and Hyedam Yu

Hyejung Park is a lesbian feminist and a freelance translator living in Seoul.

Jihye Kuk is the director of the feminist book publisher Yeolda Books and a feminist campaigner against male violence.

Hyedam Yu is a radical feminist who translated Beauty and Misogyny and Loving to Survive into Korean. She is currently working on Gender Hurts.

Caroline Norma is a feminist abolitionist and an academic at RMIT University. Her second book, Comfort Women and Post-Occupation Corporate Japan, was published last year by Routledge.

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