Revelations of False Credentials Shake South Korea

The New York Times, September 1, 2007

SEOUL, South Korea, Aug. 31 — Of all the recent revelations of résumé fraud here, the one involving a prominent Buddhist monk was perhaps the most shocking to a nation that values academic credentials almost as much as it does honesty.

The monk, the Venerable Jigwang, had transformed a temple in an affluent district of Seoul from a struggling collection of seven souls in 1984 to more than 250,000 members today, partly on the basis of his prestigious degree from Seoul National University, the country's top academic institution.

"People swarmed in because they heard that a monk who had gone to a distinguished university was teaching the scriptures in English," the Venerable Jigwang said at a confessional news conference on Aug. 18. "I think that the Seoul National University title more or less helped in propagation."

Alas, he had no such title, and in that he was not alone.

After a news agency reported in July that an important art historian had faked her credentials, a nationwide wave of allegations and confessions followed that has so far swept up a movie director, a renowned architect, the head of a performing arts center, a popular comic book writer, a celebrity chef, actors and actresses, a former TV news anchor and now the Venerable Jigwang.

South Korea has been shaken as one prominent person after another has been exposed as having exaggerated, or fabricated, academic accomplishments.

The exposés have prompted prosecutors, the police, the Education Ministry and regional education authorities to announce plans to combat academic record fraud. Legislators have introduced a bill calling for a verification system.

"Before, we struggled more with fake luxury goods," said Moon Moo-il, a public prosecutor who is leading a nationwide crackdown on document forgery and misrepresentation at the prosecutor general's office. "Now that we have entered the knowledge-based society, we have to deal with an overflow of fake knowledge."

In an intensely competitive country that has long put a premium on impressive degrees, suspicions that academic records had been falsified have circulated for years. But the tissue of untruths began to disintegrate in July, when reports emerged that Shin Jeong-ah, an art history professor at Dongguk University, the top Buddhist university in Korea, had misrepresented her past. Ms. Shin, who claimed to have a Ph.D. from Yale and other degrees from the University of Kansas, had risen quickly in the art world. At 35, she was appointed co-director of the Kwangju Biennale, one of the biggest and most acclaimed art events in East Asia.

Her troubles began when a member of her university's board of directors questioned her academic record, and then brought it to the attention of the news media. It turned out that she had attended the University of Kansas but had not graduated, and that she had never attended Yale. The university fired Ms. Shin, who lost her other positions and left for the United States.

Questions arose about other prominent figures' academic degrees. Some came forward to confess.

Among the dozen or so confirmed cheaters was Lee Chang-ha, an architect regularly featured on television. He was forced to give up his teaching job at Kimcheon Science College after saying he had received a degree from the department of fine arts at New Bridge University in Los Angeles. But New Bridge has no fine arts department.

The nationwide focus on academic fraud became so intense that it prompted Kim Ock-rang, the owner of a performing arts space, to avoid friends out of fear that her own lies about her academic record would be found out, she said in a television interview after her confession. Eventually, she resigned from her professorship at Dankook University in Seoul, after admitting that she had purchased her degree from a diploma mill in California.

In South Korea, degrees from top universities at home and abroad, especially in the United States, have a profound impact on everything from one's career to marriage prospects.

South Korean children are pressured to study obsessively from an early age, often spending evenings and weekends in cram schools in preparation for entrance exams. And South Korean corporations rely heavily on diplomas to assess job applicants, though they have rarely bothered to check their authenticity.

But if more people are cheating to gain an advantage in a fierce job market, more are getting caught, particularly as people started posting anonymous tips about credentials fraud on Web sites and online bulletin boards.

Cheating has always existed but experts say it has almost certainly increased over the past decade as South Korean companies, squeezed between high-tech Japan and low-cost China, have cut back on hiring.

"Before the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s, there were enough jobs for everyone," said Lim Min-wook, a manager at Saramin, one of the country's leading recruiting companies. "Graduates from first-tier schools landed top jobs and second-tier school graduates got the next best jobs and so on. But nowadays, there aren't many jobs, period."

Although some companies conduct aptitude tests to detect the best job candidates, the reliance on academic degrees persists.

Joo Tae-san, the chief executive of Maxmovie, an online movie and performance ticketing company, said he had no choice.

"There is no other way to verify a person's competence," he said. "Calling former employers or professors for comments and recommendation letters isn't helpful because they will either not comment or only praise the person."

Despite the weight assigned to academic degrees, South Korean companies have never systematically verified them, a task more difficult with foreign degrees.

This was underscored by the case of Lee Ji-young, the host of a popular English-learning radio program for seven years.

The public network Korea Broadcasting System hired her without checking her background, which she said included degrees from the University of Brighton, in England.

But she pushed things a little too far. After landing the radio job, she kept playing up her fabricated academic background in interviews and a book. Her luck ran out when an anonymous caller tipped off reporters.

Ms. Lee was forced to resign. In a farewell message posted on her radio show's Web site, she explained that she had come to Seoul from her rural hometown and that she had tried but failed to enter college.

Lying worked, but proved difficult to undo. "I wanted to stop," she said, "but a long time had passed."

Home:               Corruption Index                Contact Us

Valid HTML 4.01 Transitional