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South Korea's Child Porn Law Blasted for Restricting Freedom of Expression

A new youth protection law in South Korea, meant to protect children by clamping down on child pornography, is being assailed for its broad language that labels net users who unknowingly downloaded suspicious content and artists who depict children in their work as criminals.

The Youth Sex Protection Law went into effect a little less than two months ago, but there already has been a flurry of complaints about the ambiguity of the law and the police's overzealous crackdown of file-sharing sites. According to local news report [ko], 1,938 people were taken into custody and six were arrested for violating the law in April alone. Only 106 were directly involved in making and sales of child porn.

The Youth Sex Protection Law not only punishes those directly involved in producing and selling child porn but also people who simply downloaded a file that contains implied sex with someone who appears as underage. Users have flooded online community sites, including ‘Netizen’s Discussions on Porn Crackdown’, the largest site dedicated to the issue with 93,000 members, to detail their own experiences. Some have written that they were being charged as pornography distributors for unknowingly sharing files which they downloaded via torrent file.

A one-person protest against the Youth Sex Protection Law. Photo by blogger DooPiece (CC BY- NC- ND 2.0)

One of the law's clauses stipulates that “a [cultural or art] expression that depicts or implies sexual intercourse with ‘a human or an image that can be perceived as underaged kids” in any medium is a violation. This includes virtual characters in animation or game.

User Hanguk-dongin [ko] on DeviantART, an online community site for artists, protested against the controversial clause, writing [ko]:

이 법률은 ‘실재'아동을 괴롭히는 이들을 처벌하려는 것이 목적이 아니라, 마치 표현물, 창작물을 검열하기 위한 것으로 보입니다 [...] 당신이 그린, 쓴 캐릭터가 아동이나 청소년이 아닐지라도 “아동/청소년으로 보인다”는 집행기관의 자의적 판단으로 당신은 범죄자가 될 수 있습니다.

This law seems not really about punishing those who harass the “real kids”, but about censoring creative works and [cultural] expressions [...] 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.

The writer also accused the law of having a double standard when it comes to art — some literary works perceived as “serious work of art” can get away with containing similar contents, while popular cartoons cannot.

Blogger DooPiece elaborated [ko] on this:

표현의 자유 측면에서도 아청법은 상충된다. 청소년을 대상으로 한 여러 만화나 애니, 게임에 등장하는 캐릭터들은 설정이 20세가 넘은 젊은 여성이거나 늙지 않는 판타지 세계의 요정일지라도 의도치 않게 여기에 걸려들수 있다. 당연히 작가나 출판, 배표 업자의 입장에선 서비스를 위해서라도 해당 내용을 수정 순화시킬 수 밖에 없단 얘기고, 이는 곧 자유로운 표현의 위축을 불러오게 될 것이다.

The law also contradicts freedom of expression. Any character in cartoons, animations, and games which are sold to kids [is subjected to this rule]. This includes 20-something female characters and age-defying elves [if they appear underage]. This has obviously forced authors, publications, and syndication companies to alter their content and it will chill free expression.

South Korea’s Open Net, together with several cartoonist consolidations, released a statement voicing concerns over the abuse of the law. The writer revealed that many of those convicted for violating the law witnessed changes made in their initial written arraignments – meaning police changed some descriptions of the grounds on which they were charged — which would be a serious misstep caused by the ambiguity of the law:

경찰단계에서 실존 아동에 대한 성범죄를 보호하기 위한 수사활동을 하기보다는, ‘보여주기식’으로 무리하게 수사 및 기소를 하여, 아청법 위반의 소지가 없었던 사람들이 억울하게 오랜시간 고초를 겪은 셈입니다. [...] 실존아동과 전혀 관련없이 아동학대라는 설정을 그림이나 애니메이션으로 표현하였다고 해서 아동성범죄로 처벌하는 것은 살인에 대한 내용이 있다고 해서 살인죄로 처벌하거나 [...] 이렇게 해석되면 아동학대, 살인, 마약의 극악무도함을 보여주려는 작품 제작자들까지 모두 범죄자가 되어버립니다.

Police investigations, instead of focusing on protecting underage children who are potential victims of sex crimes, were instead determined to demonstrate their seriousness about the law. And police indeed investigated and indicted too much.  Due to this, innocent people, who should not be suspected for violating the law, have unfairly suffered for a long period of time [...] Treating a mere depiction of harassment, which were expressed via image and animation, as a real crime against kids is [ridiculous. It is] equivalent to applying the same level of punishment to a content creator who depicts murder as they do to a real murderer [...] If they are overzealous in applying this law, content creators who show the villainy of child abuse, murder, or drug abuse can all be labeled as criminals.

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