Fake school records shame Korean figures

The New York Times, August 28, 2007

SEOUL — South Korea is being shaken by a series of scandals involving an art historian, a movie director, a renowned architect, the head of a performing arts center, a popular comic book writer, a celebrity chef, leading actors and actresses, a former TV news anchor, even a revered Buddhist monk. What binds them is that all falsified their academic records.

In an intensely competitive country that has long put a premium on impressive degrees, one prominent person after another is being exposed as having exaggerated, or even fabricated, academic accomplishments. The revelations of résumé fraud have created problems for South Korean corporations, which rely heavily on diplomas to assess job applicants.

Although companies attach huge importance to degrees, 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 also getting caught, thanks to the Internet.

Suspicions that academic records were falsified have circulated for years. But in July, a news report that an important art history professor had faked her credentials triggered a wave of similar allegations and confessions.

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, who is leading a nationwide crackdown of 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.' "

The first bombshell exploded July 11, with news reports that Shin Jeong Ah, an art history professor at Dongguk University, Korea's top Buddhist university, had faked her credentials. Shin, who had claimed to have a Ph.D. from Yale and other degrees from the University of Kansas, had risen quickly in South Korea's art world. At the age of 35, she was appointed co-director of the Gwangju Biennale, one of the biggest 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.

The university eventually fired Shin, who then lost her other positions and moved to the United States.

The Shin case was just the beginning. Questions were raised 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 college teaching job after it became known that he lied about his degrees. Lee Hyun Sae, a popular comic book writer, claimed to be a college graduate when he had only completed high school.

One of the biggest shocks involved a well-known Buddhist monk named Jigwang, whose temple in an affluent district of Seoul had grown from seven members in 1984 to more than 250,000. Part of the respect he enjoyed arose from the widespread belief that he had attended 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," Jigwang said at a news conference Aug. 18. "I think that the Seoul National University title more or less helped in propagation."

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.

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.

Cheating has probably always existed to some degree. 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 their own aptitude tests to detect the best job candidates, the dependence on academic degrees persists.

Joo Tae San, the chief executive of Maxmovie, an online movie and performance ticketing firm, 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 aren't helpful because they will either not comment or only praise the person."

Park Hyo Chong, professor of national ethics education at Seoul National University, agreed that personal recommendations were seldom useful. When Koreans talk about other people, especially for job recommendations, he said, "they tend to highlight their pros and hide their cons."

Despite the weight assigned to academic degrees, South Korean companies have never developed the practice of systematically verifying them. The problem becomes greater with foreign degrees.

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

The country's public broadcaster, Korea Broadcasting System, hired her without checking her degrees, which she said were from the University of Brighton, 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 in a book. Her luck ran out when an anonymous caller tipped off reporters.

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

Like many others whose lies unraveled recently, she said, "I wanted to stop, but a long time had passed."


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