The alleged leader of an online sexual blackmail ring which exploited dozens of vulnerable women and girls has been named after millions signed petitions in South Korea.

At least 74 women, including 16 underage girls, were “virtually enslaved” for months, according to South Korea's National Police Agency.

They were blackmailed and coerced by the group into sending videos of themselves performing increasingly degrading and sometimes violent sexual acts.

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These were then posted to chatrooms on the encrypted Telegram messaging app, where some 10,000 people used cryptocurrencies to pay the group between £150 and £1,000 for access.

Police broke with policy to name the 24-year-old suspect Cho Ju-bin, after five million people signed petitions urging them to do so.

As public outrage reached critical mass over a culture which critics allege is lenient about sexual abuse and often fails victims, South Korean president Moon Jae-in was forced to intervene.

He called for a thorough investigation and – with a petition garnering two million signatures calling for the thousands of chatroom users to be named – stern punishment for all those involved in chatrooms.

Mr Cho is accused of luring victims with fake job adverts for modelling and escorting in order to solicit compromising photographs.

These women and girls – many of whom had run away from home and used social media to trade online sex for money – were directed to a Telegram account which extracted their names, phone numbers, addresses, friend lists, and photos, which were then used to blackmail them.

Wearing a neck brace and handcuffs, Mr Cho – who allegedly uses the nickname “Doctor” – was paraded before reporters at a police station in Seoul before officers drove him to the prosecutors’ office.

Protesters swarmed outside the police facility, brandishing signs reading “from chatroom to prison” and “punish all users”, shouting: “Give him the highest penalty!”

“I apologise to those who were hurt by me,” Mr Cho said, but did not respond when asked by reporters whether he admitted to the charges. “Thank you for ending the life of a demon that I couldn’t stop.”

He is charged with violating the child protection act, the privacy act and the sexual abuse act, as well as abuse, threats, and coercion, according to police.

An alleged victim, who is still at school, described to South Korea’s CBS radio how she was told to send pictures of herself and at least 40 sexually abusive videos while looking for work online, according to the BBC.

“He already had my face, my voice, my personal information,” the victim said. ”I was afraid that he would threaten me with that information if I said I would quit.”

Mr Cho allegedly operated one of the biggest chatrooms with around 10,000 users, and police are investigating whether he operated others.

Police told reporters that 124 suspects had been arrested and 18 operators of chatrooms had been detained since September.

Additional reporting by agencies

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