SEOUL, South Korea — A South Korean court on Monday rejected an extradition request by the United States for a South Korean citizen convicted of running one of the world’s biggest child pornography websites on the dark web.
The South Korean, Son Jong-woo, 24, completed an 18-month sentence in April for operating a child pornography site called “Welcome to Video,” which was inaccessible by regular web browsers and for which he collected fees paid in Bitcoin from the site’s users, officials said. The United States Justice Department wanted him extradited to face money-laundering and other charges in an American court.
But in a widely monitored ruling, the Seoul High Court said that keeping him in South Korea would help the country in its efforts to track down the users of his site for possible indictment.
The court’s decision on Monday was a huge letdown for anti-child pornography groups in South Korea that had hoped that Mr. Son’s extradition to the United States would help deter sexual crimes in South Korea. Some of the men in the United States who received child pornography through Welcome to Video have been sentenced to five to 15 years in prison.
In contrast, a lower court in South Korea gave Mr. Son only a suspended prison term. An appeals court later sent him to jail, but for only 18 months.
Anti-child-pornography activists in South Korea, who have been outraged by what they see as the local judiciary’s light punishment of Mr. Son, had also called for his extradition.
Mr. Son operated Welcome to Video from June 2015 until he was arrested in March 2018. Law enforcement officials around the globe have worked together to track the site’s users and have arrested hundreds of people in a dozen countries, most of them South Koreans.
They also rescued at least 23 underage victims in the United States, Britain and Spain who were being actively abused by users of the site, the Justice Department said in October, when it revealed that Mr. Son had been indicted by a federal grand jury in the District of Columbia for running the site.
In May, Mr. Son’s father sued his son, accusing him of concealing proceeds from his criminal activities. The move was widely seen as an attempt to open a new legal case against Mr. Son in South Korea and prevent him from being extradited to the United States.
In the courtroom on Monday, Mr. Son again apologized for his crime and said he would “take whatever other punishment there is for me here in South Korea.”
Public outrage against underage pornography has grown in South Korea in recent months, prompting Parliament to pass a bill calling for prison terms for the possessors and viewers of child pornography, as well as for its producers and distributors.
South Korea has also been scandalized by the discovery of a network of clandestine online chat rooms that lured young women with promises of high-paying jobs online and then exploited them sexually.
Several men are on trial on charges of coercing dozens of women, including underage girls, into performing sex acts and sharing the footage in pay-to-view services run through the messaging app Telegram.