updated 4/14/2005 11:23:09 PM ET 2005-04-15T03:23:09

The world’s most wired country is raiding cyberspace’s red-light district in a campaign pitting Confucian morals against modern technology.

Since January, the main prosecutor’s office in Seoul has issued arrest warrants for about 100 people charged with spreading obscene material under South Korea’s telecommunications law, a crime carrying penalties of up to a year in jail or a nearly $10,000 fine.

In a highly publicized case last month, police in the southern city of Busan arrested the operator of a Web site that offers a forum to arrange swaps of sex partners. The 36-year-old man, whose name hasn’t been released, is charged with spreading obscene material and remains jailed while the investigation continues, said Busan police officer Lee Nam-sik, who is heading the probe.

The campaign comes amid a wider moral crackdown starting last year, when penalties for prostitution-related crimes also were doubled.

Korea has an active sex trade — both online and off. According to the Korean Institute of Criminology, the amount spent on prostitution alone amounted to $23.6 billion in 2002, the last year for which figures were available.

At a recent Cabinet meeting, where the campaign against prostitution was discussed, President Roh Moo-hyun stressed the need for establishing a “healthy consumption culture,” implying money should be spent on things other than the sex trade.

In a country where more than 70 percent of homes have high-speed Internet connections, access to cyberporn is easy.

That means traditional taboos in Korea’s conservative, Confucian-based society have quickly shattered, said Lee Mee-sook, a sociology professor at Paichai University in the central city of Daejeon.

“The code of ethics became weak, and people started satisfying their sexual desires through the Internet — anonymously,” she said.

On a busy street in the center of the South Korean capital Seoul, “adult” Internet cafes aren’t hard to find. In the cafes, customers can surf the Web in private booths, as opposed to the open rows of computers found in typical cybercafes.

Authorities “can’t really control it because it’s the Internet, it’s impossible,” said Lee, 28, a worker at the Red Box adult Internet cafe, who gave only his last name. “We should have the freedom to see whatever we want.”

Web operators insist that adult content appearing on mainstream sites has been rated by the Korea Media Rating Board, the agency responsible for setting age recommendations for everything from films to computer games, and complain that prosecutors have overstepped their authority.

“The portal sites are being accused for what they thought was legal,” said Lee Yeun-woo of Kinternet, an organization that represents popular portals such Yahoo Korea, Daum and Naver.

“The fine actually isn’t that much. But we want to prove what those sites did wasn’t illegal and want the prosecutors to prove what was wrong.”

To get around laws regulating Web site content, some sex sites are based on Web servers outside South Korea. The Ministry of Information and Communications is asking Internet providers to block access to them as well.

Many Korean Web sites require users to enter their national identification card numbers to confirm their age to access adult content. But tech-savvy children can use programs to create false numbers or simply use their parents’ IDs instead.

South Korea’s constitution guarantees freedom of speech, but contains the caveat that such expression should neither “violate the honor or rights of other persons nor undermine public morals or social ethics.”

The law doesn’t define obscenity, but Jun Ji-yun, a law professor at Seoul’s Yonsei University, said it was understood to be something that “brings sexual disgrace to people.”

Given the sheer volume of Internet pornography, prosecutors realize they face an uphill battle. They are focusing on larger Web portals and other well-known sites first, in hopes that their investigation will draw attention to the issue and serve as a warning, said Kim Dae-hyun, a Seoul prosecutor.

“There are so many crimes and so many pornography sites out there,” he said. “We cannot deal with all of them with such a limited amount of people here.”

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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