'Cyber Hell' Netflix documentary digs deeper into 'Nth room' case

A scene from Netflix documentary on the notorious Nth room case titled "Cyber Hell: Exposing an Internet Horror" [NETFLIX]

The digital sex crime group notoriously known as the "Nth room" shocked the country when it was first exposed by journalists and two female university students in 2019.

Netflix documentary “Cyber Hell: Exposing an Internet Horror,” released on May 18, focuses on the narrative of the “pursuers”: Team Flame, two female university students who helped bring the case to light; two journalists from the local media outlet The Hankyoreh; Chang Eun-jo and Choi Kwang-il of JTBC’s “Spotlight”; Jeong Jae-won of SBS’s “Y-Story” and the cybercrime detectives. Each played a critical role in revealing the crime and catching the main perpetrators hiding behind the curtain of the online world where they enslaved dozens of women and girls into sexual exploitation.

What was truly preposterous about the crime lies in both the youth of the perpetrators and the victims, and the fact that the sex abuse of young females took place entirely online — without any sort of physical contact. The victims were young females in their teens and 20s, while the primary perpetrators, active under Telegram usernames Godgod and Baksa, were revealed at the time to be 25-year-old Cho Ju-bin and 24-year-old Moon Hyung-wook.

When Netflix proposed that director Choi Jin-jeong do a crime documentary, Choi instantly knew that the Nth room case would be the way to go, due to its novelty.

A scene from Netflix documentary "Cyber Hell: Exposing an Internet Horror"[NETFLIX]

“The two items put on the table were the serial murders which took place in Hwaseong, Gyeonggi [famously one of Korea’s most shocking crime cases involving the serial murders and grisly rapes of 14 women and girls throughout the 1980s and ‘90s] and the Nth room case,” Choi said at an interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily at its office in Sangam-dong in Mapo District, western Seoul, last week.

“[Netflix and I] began to discuss [making a documentary] in March 2020, just as the latter began to go viral. I, and Netflix too, chose the latter because although the Hwaseong serial killings were very notable cases, the Nth room case was unprecedented: a sex crime ring using Telegram, sexual exploitation through hacking on Godgod’s part and Baksa making a profit out of it all with cryptocurrency. It contained keywords that were entirely new to us, a contemporary format of crime which can easily be duplicated globally, and already is being mimicked across the globe. So I thought it was crucial that we show this to the global audience.”

Director Choi Jin-seong

In this interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily, Choi revealed the moral standards he kept to while making the documentary and the behind-the-scene narratives of how his film came to be. The following are edited excerpts.

Q. The interviewees play an essential role in propelling the narrative forward. Did you have any difficulties in persuading the journalists and Team Flame to feature in your film?

A. I first contacted the four — Team Flame and the two journalists from The Hankyoreh — around March and April 2020. They were more relieved and excited that this case was going to be shown on Netflix because they were so frustrated by the slow coverage that their case was gathering in comparison to the explicitness of the crime. I had no difficulty at all getting the four of them to feature in my film.

Team Flame is the alias taken on by two female university student journalists who first discovered the Nth room. [NETFLIX]

As I began to search for more people who played a critical role in catching the culprits, producers and writers from television investigative programs caught my eye. When the media first got wind of the Nth room case, there was no journalist in the social affairs department who wasn’t covering this issue. However, The Hankyoreh, JTBC, and SBS had one thing in common: They were threatened by the perpetrators that if they delve further into the case, they [the perpetrators] would create more ‘slaves,’ that is, more victims, labeled by the program or the newspaper’s name.

From the perspective of a director, this whole plot which erupted from two university students, spreading to a local newspaper to television until it reached the police, felt like a relay, a whole collaboration of teamwork which fit perfectly together like pieces of a puzzle.

That's when I decided on the framework in which the pursuers would be the protagonists of my documentary: Not only it is entertaining, but it’s also meaningful and gives a message to the audience about solidarity: Not one person can be solely credited to catching the culprits — not only the media, but it also derived from the anonymous solidarity among people, including the victims, on social media who all hashtagged ‘Nthroom’ and who wrote on the Blue House petition boards to raise public awareness. That is what I wanted to convey to the audience through the film: That culprits will always get caught, and that it was only possible because we, the rest of us, were holding hands, united, without even knowing that we were.

Your documentary covers in explicit detail how the crimes were carried out and the victims’ sufferings. How did you investigate the data behind the victims? Have you met any of them in person?

As we addressed through the subtitles at the beginning of the film, all of the footage and images that we used regarding the victims are reenactments. I first requested it from Team Flame and the journalists from The Hankyoreh because they had the most data, and they gave the data to me after filtering out all of the victims' personal information. To prevent secondary victimization, only me and the female assistant director consulted the given data, and we unanimously arrived at the conclusion that we could not use the footage or images directly, even if the content is blurred. The results are the same in the end — whether we blur the given data or blur it after we reenact them — from the third person’s perspective. But I believed that the victims would know that it’s them. I mean, I would know that a person in a photo or video is me no matter how blurred it is. Moreover, I firmly believed that it was just plain wrong to directly use the data. Even though it may have taken more time and effort, all of the images of sexual abuse that appear in the film have been recreated, and even as I think back now, I think it was the right choice.

Journalists Oh Yeon-seo, above, and Kim Wan from local media outlet The Hankyoreh conducted the first in-depth reporting on the online sexual crime ring now known as the Nth room. [NETFLIX]

Can you explain the process behind how Baksa and Godgod lured the victims into sexual exploitation?

For Godgod, he would message women and tell them that private images of them were leaking online and attach a link with a fake Twitter address. The victims would click, but what they didn’t know was that it was a fake Twitter page: so when they type in their ID and password, that information would be directly transmitted back to Godgod, through which he would then have access to all of their private information. He would then use the information to blackmail them and get them to comply with his demands. According to experts, [creating fake websites] requires only a very low level of hacking skills and it’s not that difficult to create. However, the victims were young females in their teens and 20s and were easily fooled into accessing the fake pages.

For Baksa, he utilized secret chatrooms to lure the victims in, reassuring them that all photos and footage would be erased instantly after they upload anything and that no one would be able download them. It’s true though — Telegram is the first social media service to ever assign an option to open a server which automatically deletes the users’ conversation every three to five seconds. It is the perfect gateway for intimate conversations, and users can actually see their conversations getting deleted. However, in the PC version, it is said that users can easily record the screen and it’s not that difficult to hack into the system to record and save the images.

As you investigated and interviewed about the Nth room case, what did you feel was truly hellish about the crime?

As the film’s title implies, it’s a cyber hell, but what’s truly horrific about these crimes is that the victims, after all the atrocities that they went through, remain alone because they cannot open up to their families. Writer Chang Eun-jo mentions this in her interview — one family’s daughter is being abused via mobile, but the mother and father watching a television entertainment program out in the living room are completely unaware of it. In her room, there are remains of post-its on which the victims were forced to write things such as "I love you baksa," but still, the parents don’t know and they couldn’t possibly know. I believe that was what was hellish about this crime — you cannot tell or share what you’re going through to your friends or family who are right next to you.

I also think that this is one of the important messages I want to convey to the audience — related experts say at the end of the film that the victims cannot help but be threatened because they cannot tell others. In essence, what formulates the violence of the crimes is that what the victims truly fear is what others would think of them. I believe that all of us, in some way or another, unconsciously allowed this social stigma to form, which led to the victims’ sufferings.

You take the audience through a step-by-step process of the main perpetrators getting caught, including users such as Rabbit, Baksa and Godgod. Do you believe, then, that the Nth room case is over?

No, it’s not. It is true that the main perpetrators such as Godgod and Baksa received heavier penalties than what was used before: Before the Nth room case, culprits [of online sexual abuse crimes] would receive a maximum of seven to eight years for this severity of crime. [Baksa and Godgod were each sentenced to 42 years and 34 years in prison.] However, I’m also aware that some thousands of other perpetrators, the onlookers who may not have directly coerced females or participated in creating the videos, have either gotten away with it lightly or perhaps even escaped from being punished at all.

I have heard doubts or questions regarding whether anything has changed after the Nth room case gained public attention. What people should be aware of is that the suffering of the victims is permanent because their videos will eternally exist online. Then, in comparison, can we truly consider that the penalties that the perpetrators received are heavy? Or to those who may have gotten off lightly? No, I don’t believe the Nth room to be over.