Send to

Scandal exposes Korea’s twisted obsession with degrees

June 16, 2015 - 20:27 By Ock Hyun-ju
Two weeks ago, a South Korean “math prodigy” made headlines across the country after claiming that she had been accepted into two prestigious American universities, Stanford and Harvard.

Kim Jung-yoon, a senior at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Virginia, rose to fame after media reported that the top-tier universities had competed to recruit her to their undergraduate programs and ended up creating a special shared program only for her to study at both schools.

According to the reports, the 18-year-old girl secured a rare chance to study at both schools and choose where to graduate from. Kim showed acceptance letters from the schools to back her claims.

Kim was featured on radio talk shows while her father contributed to the hype by conducting interviews with local news outlets.

The reports on Kim’s achievement sparked envy among Koreans who have been living in a climate where admission into top universities is seen as key to elevating their social status.

But about a week later, her whole story was unraveled, with both Harvard and Stanford universities denying the acceptance of the Korean student. The universities confirmed that there was no such joint program allowing a student to study at both schools, calling the acceptance letters provided by Kim forgeries. 

Kim Jung-yoon, a senior at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Virginia, walks out of Incheon International Airport under protection of an acquaintance on Friday. (Yonhap)

Kim, who appears to have masterminded the whole furor herself, immediately went from being idolized to ridiculed, with her father apologizing last week for causing a stir and promising to take care of her mental health.

Putting aside the reason behind her scam, the scandal appeared to leave a bitter aftertaste here, as it bluntly illustrated the country’s avid obsession with academic elitism and a competitive media industry prone to lapses of judgment.

A 28-year-old student said he could sympathize with her as he understands what it feels like to fail to enter top-tier universities and to be treated like a “loser” in Korean society.

“I have felt that entering a renowned university is a way to have my voice heard in Korean society,” Lee, who wanted to be identified only by his surname, told The Korea Herald. Lee is studying for a master’s at a Seoul-based university after receiving a diploma from a lesser-known college.

“When I criticize the social structure, people think that I am complaining due to my poor educational background,” he said. “Then, I become a loser again.”

In Korea, it has been considered a norm that one’s diploma defines the rest of his or her life, from career to even marriage prospects.

Cliques are formed based on educational backgrounds, with graduates from the nation’s top universities taking up high positions on the social ladder and dominating academia, business and politics.

The infamous Korean helicopter moms enroll their toddlers in English-language kindergartens, in desperate hopes that the child will not be left behind in the fierce competition to enter the country’s best universities, or if not, prestigious ones abroad.

Kim is one of the kids who might have felt pressured to impress her parents, said Seol Dong-hoon, a sociology professor from Chonbuk National University.

“The whole hullaballoo could have only been a family issue, but Kim’s father made her lie public by showing off his daughter’s achievement through the media,” Seol said.

Indeed, Kim’s case was only the latest in a long list of academic fabrication cases in Korea.

One of the most high-profile scandals came in 2007 when Shin Jeong-ah, an art history professor at Dongguk University, faked her academic record.

On the back of her distinguished degrees from Yale and University of Kansas, Shin rapidly shot to prominence in the local art world. She was appointed codirector of the Gwangju Biennale, one of the biggest art events in East Asia, at the age of 35.

But Shin fell from grace when her academic accomplishments turned out to be forged. She resigned from all her posts and was eventually convicted of falsifying records and embezzlement.

The Shin case triggered a wave of similar allegations and confessions across the nation involving a professor, movie director, renowned architect, leading actors and actresses and even a respected monk.

Behind the academic fraud cases is Koreans’ belief that educational backgrounds indicate “status” in society, experts said.

“Koreans have viewed an academic degree as a prerequisite to success and climbing up the social ladder, which has intensified competition for admission to prestigious universities,” Shin Kwang-yeong, a sociology professor from Chung-Ang University, told The Korea Herald.

And the belief has more than 1,000 years of history to it.

“Back in history, only aristocrats had a chance to take a state-administered exam to rise in social status,” Shin said, referring to the Goryeo (918-1392) and Joseon (1392-1895) dynasties under which people took the Gwageo, the national civil service exam to advance into society.

“But now, exams are standardized and institutionalized so that anyone in any class can take an exam, get respectable degrees and enter the upper tier of society,” he added.

With the country’s leading businesses and key national exams still favoring those with prestigious diplomas, the obsession to embellish one’s academic record persists, experts said.

A recent survey suggested that university degrees still have a huge impact on new graduates’ job prospects. According to a survey of 418 firms by recruitment site Saramin, 88.5 percent of the surveyed companies said that they have given an advantage to those holding a degree from renowned universities in the resume screening process.

Asked about the reason behind the practice, the companies said that they saw prestigious degrees as a result of one’s efforts and a means of objectively measuring job seekers’ abilities.

Other experts pointed out the Kim’s scandal was also a result of poor quality journalism.

After it was found to be fabricated, a mainstream media outlet published a lengthy correction after having covered the teenage girl’s story.

“Kim’s story had every element that can excite Koreans ― the success of a Korean abroad and acceptance into prestigious universities,” said Choi Jin-bong, who teaches mass communications at Sungkonghoe University.

“That’s perhaps why Korean media hastily picked up the story.”

With the news about Kim going viral in Korea after first being covered by a Korean newspaper in the U.S., the local media continued to reproduce the story until parents and students at Kim’s school raised questions about her credentials, which later prompted a local daily to check the supposed facts.

“Amid fierce competition to attract readers and generate traffic online, local news outlets lack a system to check facts before reporting,” Choi said, pinpointing a structural problem of online journalism driven by “stimulating” stories.

“Such diminishing media ethics can strike us all in the long run,” Choi added.

Above all, the Kim case sounds the alarm to a society that has been pushing its youth to “risk their lives” to get into top-tier universities, said Kim Ji-ae, an activist campaigning to break academic cliques in society.

“The 18-year-old girl is not the only one to blame. Korean society that has made a university degree a source of pride or inferiority should take the blame,” Kim said. “Kim’s behavior might be a self-portrait of us all.”

By Ock Hyun-ju (