Shin Jeong-ah speaks during a press conference at Lotte Hotel in Sogong-dong, central Seoul, on Tuesday. (Yonhap News)
The woman at the center of one of South Korea’s biggest scandals has returned with an autobiography.
Shin Jeong-ah, who shook the nation in 2007 with fabrication of her academic record, embezzlement and an affair with a high-level government official, appeared in public for the first time Tuesday with her book “4001” at a press conference held at Lotte Hotel in Sogong-dong, central Seoul.
Cameras flashed when the 39-year-old appeared in the room, dressed in a gray suit and a white T-shirt, looking gloomy. Her lawyer accompanied her.
“This book contains my story of the past four years starting from July 16, 2007, when I landed in New York. I spent one and a half years in jail but I think I have been living as prisoner number 4001 until now. I think of today as the day I am parting with number 4001. It will be the day I start to be a new Shin Jeong-ah, which will certainly be different from the Shin Jeong-ah before,” said Shin, calmly.
Shin, the former Dongguk University professor and art curator, served an 18-month term and was released on bail in April 2009. She was convicted of fabricating a doctoral degree from Yale University and embezzling funds from Seongkok Art Museum where she worked from 2002 to 2007. She was also ordered to compensate 129 million won ($114,993) to the art museum.
She also made headlines at the time with the scandal involving Byeon Yang-kyoon, a former presidential policy planner with whom she had affairs with and had supported her in many ways. Byeon received a one-year prison term, suspension for two years and a 160-hour social service order, convicted of professional misconduct.
Her book, released Tuesday, reveals her side of the story. Composed of the diary entries she wrote since the scandal broke in 2007 until now, the book contains detailed accounts of her dates with Byeon, her explanations on the academic career fabrication and embezzlement, her recollection of relationships with many high-profile figures, her life in jail and more. The title of the book, “4001,” refers to the number on her prison uniform.
“The biggest purpose of the book is to repent the past and ask for forgiveness. But there are many things that were misunderstood, and she also wants to correct them. She thinks it lacks authenticity, just repenting for things that were not true,” said Ahn Hee-gon, president of April Books, the publisher of the book.
The book, however, is creating bigger controversies as it reveals actual names of the university presidents, professors, current members of the National Assembly and journalists who had relationships with Shin in various ways.
Accounts of her meetings with former President Roh Moo-hyun and former Prime Minister Chung Un-chan are mentioned in separate chapters in the book.
“It could hurt the people involved, but I could not help but mention their names because if I don’t, my past four years become nothing. We changed some names into initials after my lawyer examined the book,” said Shin.
“I am very sorry and cautious about mentioning President Roh because he is no longer alive. But the media was writing about ‘the people behind’ me, naming those who I trusted and had trusted me and encouraged me. Seeing the media name even those I do not know, I thought it would be impossible for me to lead a career. So I wrote their names and stories, to show how humane and genuine our relationships were. I just wrote a part of what was true.”
About Chung, she said that she cannot say more than the things she already revealed in the book. In the book, she writes that Chung said he liked her and that she was such a lovable girl that he would like to see her often. She wrote that he usually asked to meet in the late evening and sometimes touched her as he talked. She did say that there were more details to the story but were edited after the lawyer examined them in legal aspects.
The book also discloses names of journalists who Shin wrote she was close with but later “betrayed” her by writing badly about her after the scandal broke out, and one who she accuses of having sexually harassed her.
“My lawyer examined the details for several months, so I think the stories will bring no legal problems,” said Shin.
Shin admitted her faults regarding what turned out to be a forgery of her academic career, but said that she did not fabricate anything. In her book, she mentions “Although it might be meager, I did make efforts (to earn the degree) so my rubbish philosophy was that it is of a totally different level compared to degrees that are simply purchased.”
“I am not denying that it is my fault. But what I want to correct is that although it was wrong to have someone help me regarding the fabrication of the degree, I did not forge it. I cannot say much during the trial so I only wrote the parts I could in the book, but more stories will come out when the lawsuit closes in two or three months. Then I will have an opportunity to speak more about it,” said Shin. Ahn added that facts that support her assertion are included in the book.
The lawsuit between Yale University and Dongguk University regarding Shin’s false doctorate is still ongoing.
Regarding the detailed dating scenes with Byeon in the book, Shin said she just wanted to show what it was really like.
“I mulled over whether it would be appropriate to include the story in the book or not. But so many stories about us came out, those I cannot even imagine. I figured it would be too pathetic to hide the story now. So I just decided to show everyone what had really happened and then be reproved or self-reflect. Though it may not be an appropriate relationship, I thought this would be a better way to encourage each other and start a new life,” said Shin.
Shin burst into tears when she talked about the painting, “Longing for Love,” on the book cover. She painted it while she was an art student at the University of Kansas, thinking about the pink dress her father had given to her as a present.
“I painted it after my father passed away in 1994. He is still the one who makes my heart ache the most and who I am most sorry to. That is why I put it on the cover,” said Shin.
Shin also confessed that she is suffering from a victim mentality after Munhwa Ilbo printed nude photos it claimed to be Shin’s.
“I was not so embarrassed when the photo first came out. My job was to respect the creativity of artists, so I thought it was possible to make such a photo. But as it lead on to ‘sex lobby’ issues, it became my complex. I could not contact my family or meet my friends. No matter how open-minded the society has gotten, it was so shameful and dishonorable, as a woman, to have everything lay bare,” said Shin.
Shin said that she felt uncomfortable about MBC’s soon-to-air TV drama “Goodbye Miss Ripley” which is based on Shin’s story. But she said she will watch it.
“It might seem to you that the time I suffered was far from enough, but I really desperately held out. I still agonize about what I would be able to do for a living. The case was so big in the art scene, and I have never thought of going back. If there is a good position somewhere, please let me know and I will really do my best,” said Shin.
By Park Min-young (email@example.com
신정아 “정운찬 전 총리가 호텔로 불러내...”
신정아 씨가 자신의 자서전인 ‘4001’에서 정운찬 전(前) 총리와의 관계에 대해 다시 한번 밝혀 관심을 끌고 있다.
정운찬 전 총리는 지난 2007년 당시 “신정아 씨에게 서울대 교수직을 제안했다”는 보도에 대해 “서울대의 채용 시스템을 아는 사람이면 신씨가 말도 안 되는 거짓말을 하고 있다는 사실을 쉽게 간파할 수 있을 것”이라고 일축한 바 있다.
정 전총리의 이같은 강력 부인에도 불구, 신정아 씨가 자신의 자서전에서 정 전총리와의 관계설을 다시 꺼낸 배경에 관심이 쏠리고 있다.
신정아 씨는 22일 출간된 자신의 자서전에서 정 전 총리가 자신에게 “사랑하고 싶은 여자”라고 말하며 “앞으로 자주 만나고 싶다고 말했다”고 밝혔다.
또 신 씨는 “정 전 총리가 서울대 교수직과 미술관장직을 제안하기도 했다”며 “밤 10시 이후에 만나자는 소리를 많이 했다”고 덧붙였다.
특히 신씨는 정 전 총리가 서울 팔레스호텔 바(Bar)로 자신을 자주 불러 냈고, 그 자리에서 슬쩍슬쩍 본인의 어깨를 치거나 팔을 건드렸다고 주장했다.
이 밖에도 신씨는 정 전 총리와의 자리가 불편해 먼저 일어서려고 하면, 정 전 총리가 핸드백을 두고 가라든지 핸드백을 끌어 당기며 못 가게 할 때가 많았다고 덧붙였다.
신씨는 이날 서울 소공동 롯데호텔에서 열린 기자 간담회에서 "정 전 총리에 대해서는) 많은 부분이 있었지만, 에디팅됐다"고 말했다.
신 씨는 또 자신이 당시 ‘똥아저씨’라 밝힌 변양균 씨와의 관계를 걱정하기도 했다고 토로했다. 변 씨가 정 전 총리를 아주 싫어했고, 신씨는 “그런 만남은 똥아저씨로 충분했다”고 설명했다.
한편, 현재 정운찬 전 총리는 전화통화를 시도했으나 연락이 되지 않고 있다.