SEOUL // Walking into an empty women’s bathroom stall, Park Kwang-mi waves a hand-held detector around the toilet seat, paper roll holder, doorknob and even the ventilation grill on the ceiling.
“It’s my job to make sure there’s no camera to film women while they relieve themselves,” the 49-year-old said after similarly inspecting dozens of public toilet stalls at a museum in Seoul.
“It’s weird that there are people who want to see something like that ... but this is necessary to help women feel safe,” she said.
A member of Seoul city’s all-female “hidden camera-hunting” squad, Ms Park is at the forefront of a battle against “molka” – or secret camera porn.
South Korea takes pride in its tech prowess, from ultra-fast broadband to cutting-edge smartphones. Around 90 per cent of its 50 million people possess smartphones – the highest rate in the world.
But it is a culture that has also given rise to an army of tech-savvy peeping Toms in a male-dominated country with a poor record on women’s rights.
Many use special smartphone apps to film up women’s skirts as they ride subway escalators or sit at desks. Spy cameras have also been planted to gather footage from changing rooms and toilet stalls. The images are then often shared to numerous molka speciality sites on the internet.
Such practices have become so rampant that all manufacturers of smartphones sold in South Korea are required to ensure the cameras on their devices make a loud shutter sound when taking photos.
Molka crimes are daily news, and perpetrators cover a broad social range.
A pastor at a Seoul mega-church with 100,000 members was caught filming up a woman’s skirt on an escalator. His smartphone was packed with similar images of other women.
A 31-year-old obstetrician was jailed for secretly filming female patients and nurses in a changing room and sharing some of the images on the internet.
And the head coach of South Korea’s national swimming team resigned last month after two male swimmers were found to have installed a hidden camera in the locker room of their women teammates.
According to police data, the number of molka crimes jumped more than six-fold from about 1,110 in 2010 to more than 6,600 in 2014.
While some offenders use smartphones, others employ spy-style gadgets, including ballpoint pens, glasses or wrist watches equipped with micro lenses, said Hyun Heung-ho, a detective with Seoul police’s metro squad.
The squad was established in 1987 to fight subway crime like pickpockets, but now its main focus is on tackling various kinds of sexual harassment, including molka crimes.
“It’s tough because the technology they use advances so fast, like special apps to mute camera sound or to show something else on the display while the camera is rolling,” Mr Hyun said.
The majority of men nabbed by the squad are in their 20s or 30s and include many college-educated, white-collar workers.
“They generally cry and beg to be let off, saying they were ‘simply curious’,” Mr Hyun said.
Convicted offenders face a fine of up to 10 million won (Dh32,626) or a maximum jail term of five years.
To help with their crackdown, police have offered cash rewards to those reporting molka crimes and the Seoul city council has hired dozens of women like Ms Park to scour bathrooms and other spaces for hidden cameras.
Office worker Lee Hae-kyung said she, like many of her friends, try to avoid toilets in public spaces like subway stations.
“If I urgently need to use a public toilet, I always inspect the doorknob or the flush handle,” the 38-year-old said.
“It’s scary because many molka are apparently filmed by normal people like office workers ... so who knows? An ordinary-looking guy standing next to you in the subway may be filming up your skirt,” she said.
* Agence France-Presse