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[Online Predators] The 'helpers' preying on runaway teens

Only 5 minutes after message seeking 'helpers' was posted on SNS, 4 men approached, offering lodging, food

June 24, 2024 - 15:41 By Lee Jaeeun

In South Korean online communities and social networking sites, the word "helper" has taken on a troubling connotation.

The term is often hashtagged alongside others such as "gachul" (runaway from home), "jatei" (high school dropouts), and "yeoja" (girls).

This combination of hashtags serves as an emergency code, typically used by runaway teenage girls seeking a place to sleep and eat. But this distress signal also attracts predators looking to take advantage of their vulnerable situation.

"I'm looking for 'helpers' who live in the Seoul area." Five minutes after a Korea Herald reporter posing as a runaway 13-year-old girl created a public group chat, messages poured in from four people. All the offers came from adult men.

A man in his 30s living in Jamsil approached and asked the supposed runaway girl if it was her first time running away. When the reporter shared a fabricated story, he requested to meet in the evening for dinner and suggested sleeping overnight at a motel.

The man, who introduced himself as an office worker in his 30s living in Jamsil, recommended that he meet after work and go to a motel when the reporter introduced herself as a runaway second-year middle school girl. (Lee Jaeeun/ The Korea Herald)

Another man asked the assumed runaway girl to send him a picture of herself, meet him after work and sleep over at his place.

It is easy to find posts by runaway teenagers seeking help on social media, especially on X. There are numerous posts where runaway teenage girls seek places to stay and regular meals. Similarly, many posts by adult men offer to help teenage runaways.

A girl born in 2007 who dropped out of high school wrote on X, “My parents are divorced, and I live with my dad, but he beat me, so I ran away. My mom lives with her boyfriend. I need my parents' permission to get a part-time job, but it is impossible. So I need a helper. I'm looking for help.”

Runaways post these messages on social media because they believe it's their only option for survival, said Heo Min-sook, a legislative researcher at the National Assembly Research Service.

“Runaways need to find food and a place to sleep, and the only way they can do that is by asking someone for help,” Heo said. These runaway teens are vulnerable to crime, and when they are girls, they are easily exposed to sexual assault, abuse and sex trafficking. “There is a high probability that these (helpers) are very dangerous,” Heo added.

Teen runaways tend not to think deeply about the dangers they face because they are economically desperate to get away.

"Girls often do not know that they can go to shelters provided by the state or institutions, or even if they know, they cannot go because of limited access," said an official from a non-governmental organization for youth empowerment.

Runaway girls living in provincial areas often lack money for transportation, making reaching these shelters difficult. "In this situation, if someone offers to pick them up or provide transportation fees, they accept it because it is easier than going to a shelter."

This kind of economic hardship could also lead runaway girls into prostitution. According to a 2015 study by the Seoul Metropolitan Government, 18 percent of runaway teenage girls engaged in prostitution. Most of them had no prior experience of prostitution.

Among them, 67 percent said they started prostitution because they “needed money,” 46 percent said they “had no place to sleep,” and 28 percent said they “were hungry.”

Of those who had run away from home within the past year, half said they were aware of shelters for teens. However, only 3.2 percent actually went to these shelters, according to the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family's 2022 report."

A recent study by professor Park Woong-shin at Kyungnam College of Information and Technology found that female runaway youth, those with more experience running away and those neglected by their parents are more likely to become victims of sexual violence.

On June 12, a man in his 20s who approached a middle school girl who had run away from home was sentenced to five years in prison by the Daegu District Court. He had provided her with a place to stay, recorded a video after having sex with her and threatened to distribute the video online.

On May 31, two men in their 40s were arrested by Osan Police Station in Gyeonggi Province on suspicion of sexually assaulting and prostituting two teenage girls who had run away and were approached in Yeouido Han River Park.

According to the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family's 2022 Youth Statistics with 17,140 respondents, the rate of runaway experience among elementary, middle and high school students in 2021 was 2.5 percent. The student population aged 10 to 19 is about 4 million.

The ministry provides online and telephone counseling for youth in crisis 24 hours a day, seven days a week, through the Youth Cyber Counseling Center 1388. The ministry also operates 138 youth shelters nationwide where runaways can stay safely.

“We're not encouraging them to run away, but they should know that there are hotlines and shelters available for juvenile runaways because often they don’t know where to go for help,” Heo noted.

A Seoul-based NGO called Tacteen, which aims to protect the rights of children and adolescents, said, “Self-proclaimed helpers may start with offers of room and board, then make sexual demands, and eventually offer to buy sex.”

“If a ‘self-proclaimed helper’ contacts a teenager personally via DM or chat room, offers the teenager favors for nothing, or asks the teenager to travel to their location, it's unsafe. If you are a runaway and need help, seek an official support organization.”

Under Article 17 of the Act on the Protection and Support of Missing Children, people who harbor missing children, including runaway youths, without reporting them to the police can be punished by imprisonment for up to five years or a fine of up to 50 million won ($36,180).

South Korea's digital boom has increased convenience but also opened a new realm of serious crime, exploiting anonymity to endanger minors and vulnerable individuals with modern slavery and online sex crimes. The Korea Herald delves into dark digital spaces and efforts to combat these crimes with this new series. This is the first installment. -- Ed.