Korea: Bogus-degree and Success

A young female professor who was appointed as a director of one of the biggest festivals in Korea this month was revealed to be a bogus-degree holding intellectual. An art professor and supposed Yale University degree holder, she has brought a positive influence to the field of art by making it easier and more interesting to understand.

But the big position she received as a festival director gave rise to suspicions of how she obtained such an important position even though the festival committee members were opposed to offering the job to her. The inspection revealed that her degree was fake. Not only her PhD degree, but also her BA and MA degrees are suspected of being bogus. Her status as ‘high school graduate’ (go-jol) and her calculating malice have shocked people.

In order to hide her secret, she copied another person’s dissertation and claimed it as hers. Another reason why she became a legend is that she survived under debris in the collapse of a department store for two days in 1995.

Fake degree scandals (especially from famous overseas universities) have come up as a social issue in Korea because of frequent scandals like this. While some people focus on what she did wrong, others regard her as a heroine for mocking Korean society, which gives so much credit to a ‘degree.’

A blogger, fivecard, tracked back to a similar scandal in the past. In this case, the woman took a chunk of money from other people using her status.

사실 한국에선 심심찮게 이런 ‘가짜'사건들이 있어왔습니다. 몇해 전에는 서울대 국제경제학과를 나왔고 현재 모 정보기관 요원이라고 사칭하고 다니던 30대 주부가 체포된 적이 있습니다. 추적해보니 대학생일 나이때부터 동네 교회 청년부에서 ‘서울대생'이라고 사칭한 것은 물론, 부모 형제까지도 딸이 서울대를 나왔다고 굳게 믿고 있었다는 겁니다.

As a matter of fact, there have frequently been ‘bogus’ scandals in Korea. Several years ago, about 30-years-old housewife was arrested for representing herself falsely as the most famous university degree holder and an agent at a government intelligence service. Tracking down her past, they found her lie reached even to friends and family.

The majority of bloggers, like mramor, talk about problems in Korean society through this scandal.

이번 스캔들은 한 개인의 정체성뿐만 아니라 이번 사태를 가능하게 한 한국사회, 대학사회와 한국 미술계의 정체성까지도 되돌아보게 한다. Who are you?..

This scandal makes us look at the indentity of the Korean art field, Korean society, university society, as well as individuals. Who are you?..

A blogger who worked with her before blames society instead of her.

신씨의 거짓학위 사건, 그리고 이를 검증하지 않은 대학당국과 세계적인 수준이라 칭해지는 비엔날레.. 이들의 관계 속에서 비난 받아야 할 당사자는 누구인가. 우리는 신정아 씨의 거침없는 거짓 행각만을 탓하기 보다, ‘정치적 관행'으로 점철된 미술계의 구조, 나아가 ‘환상의 스크린'으로 우리의 눈을 가려버리는 한국사회의 문제 자체에 관심을 기울여야 한다. ‘내용(각종 스캔들)'을 만드는 우리의 구조는 바로 잘못 이식된 ‘형식(제도권)'에 있는 것은 아닐까… 자성의 물음을 던져본다.

Bogus degree scandal, and her university which didn't even examine it, and a festival which calls itself worldwide… Whom should we criticize? Rather than criticizing her fake behavior, we should pay attention to the ‘structure’ of the art field which resembles ‘political custom’ and our society filling with ‘illusion.’ I think our problem is from the ‘system’ which has been applied wrongly.

Even a journalist called her as “Seo Tae-ji” in the art field (mi-sul-gye).

On the other hand, there are other opinions against sheltering her. Some bloggers call her a female version of Hwang Woo-Suk

사람 하나 죽이나, 수십명 죽이나 같은 살인범 입니다.
더 한 잘못도 있는데, 이거는 아무것도 아니다 라는 논리는 맞지 않습니다.
잘못은 잘못이고, 틀린건 틀린겁니다.
더 큰 잘못, 더 틀린 오답은 없습니다.

There is no difference between killing one person and killing several people. They are the same murders.It doesn’t make sense to make the argument that there are worse people than her and, as a result, her fake was nothing. Fault is fault and wrong is wrong. There are no bigger fault and bigger errors.

Some bloggers, like painter, comment that this issue misses the real point.

이번 사태를 보면서 많은 분들이 오해하고 있는 부분에 대해 짚고 넘어가고자 합니다. 만약 신씨가 우리나라와 같이 학벌위주의 사회가 아니었다면 과연 그렇게 거짓으로까지 학벌을 포장했어야 했을까? 하는 점을 여러 분들이 지적하시는것 같은데요,

…학력중심의 사회, 분명히 문제있습니다. 하지만 이번 사건에서만큼은 그 화살이 엉뚱한데 꼽혔습니다. 진짜 문제는 바로 ‘거짓말'과 ‘지식도둑질’ 중심의 사회라는 것 말이죠.

Observing this scandal, I should point out the part that a lot of people misunderstand. Would the Shin Scandal be possible in other countries which do not focus on school certificates so much like Korea?

… Society prefering school certificates. It's of course problematic. But this scandal has been directed the wrong way. The real problem is a ‘lie’ and ‘knowledge theft.’

I conclude this issue with a poem that a blogger made for her.

억울할지도 모른다.
억울할 것이다.
그대는 능력있는 사람이다.
그리고 삶을 열정적으로 살고 싶은
추진력있고 친화력있는 사람이다.
모두가 그대에게 잘해 주었고
그대는 젊은 나이에도 불구하고
많은 일을 정말 멋지게 해냈다.
허나 한꺼번에 이 모든 것을 잃는다니
도저히 받아들일 수 없을 것이다.
운이 없었다고 느껴질 것이다.
또 혼자만 희생양처럼 당한다고 느낄 것이다.
하지만 그대는 아는가.
그대는 삼풍백화점 폐허 속에서 사경을 헤매다
2일만에 햇빛을 본 사람.
지옥에서 돌아와 마음 속에 갖게된
용기와 도전의식, 그것만으로
당신은 이미 성공할 사람이었다.
실은 그것만으로
이 세상 최고의 큐레이터 중 한 사람이 될
자격을 갖추게 되었다.
거짓 학위 따위는 원래 필요 없었던 것이다.
다만 시간이 다소간 필요했을 뿐인 것을.
좀 더 멀리보면 되었을 것을.
그리고 그대는 너무나 젊었던 것을.

You could feel mortified.
You must feel mortified.
You’re a capable person.
You’re the person who would like to have passionate life, positive drive, and strong sociable ability.
Everyone was nice to you.
Even though you’re so young,
you have accomplished so many achievements.
So losing everything now would be hard for you to accept.
You could think you’re unlucky.
You could feel only you became a scapegoat among so many fake people.
But do you recognize yourself?
You saw the sunshine in two days after you’re at the brink of death in the collapse of the Sampung Department Store.
You could have succeeded with that courage and challenge after going through that hell.
With those elements, you could have the qualification to be an eligible curator.
You didn’t need the fake college degree for success.
But you might have needed more time to approach that position.
You should have seen further.
You should have looked at your youth.


  • Not easy to fool the Koreans who think that to have a degree from US is the greatest thing on earth. Probably are a lot of bogus degrees in Korea.

  • ellie

    She fooled no one in Art field. The only people fooled were the public.
    It seems like the museum, the univesity and event foundations knew of her bogus lies but let her run with it to use her only true ability. She was good at appeasing and caxing old and influential people to move major private fundings for art shows and project. To do that in the Korean art field, she needed all that academic credentials. But, not only the degrees were made up. The exhibitions she received credit as her own planning while working as a curator for the past 10 years was also proven to be either mere execution of predecessor or outside commissioned.
    What’s chilling is that after all these facts have come out, she’s still insisting on the validity of her academic credential, and crying out to be an innocent victim of witch hunt. I think in a way, she’s also one of pathetic victim although she has only her mindless ambition to blame.
    Who’s the real cheater and who’s the ultimate victim in this story? In my opinion, the artists who deserve fair support and the general public who lost their trust in Korean art field are the most hurt.

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