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South Korea: Controversial Memoir Mixes Art, Sex and Politics

An art curator who shocked South Korea with her fake Yale diploma and government connections released a memoir on March 22, 2011, rocking the nation once again with her revelations.

Shin Jeong-ah, a Korean art history professor and chief curator at the Sungkok Art Museum was convicted of forging a Yale doctorate degree and embezzling funds from corporate sponsorship in an art gallery in 2007 and sentenced to an 18-month prison term.

Called the ‘art world Cinderella‘, Shin's alleged relationships with high-profile political and social figures along with the nude photos of her that have been leaked on the internet and published in local newspaper, have made her something of a celebrity.

Cover of Shin's scandalous book '4001'.

Cover of Shin's scandalous book '4001'.

Tell-all tale

In the tell-all book entitled ‘4001’, which refers to Shin’s identification number while in jail, she describes inappropriate acts with powerful figures in full detail and revealing real names. The first print run has already sold out and orders keep pouring in, as do the criticisms heaped on Shin's motives for publishing the memoir.

In the memoir, Shin claims that former prime minister and president of Seoul National University, Chung Un-chan, offered her a job at the university's art gallery in exchange for sex, a claim Chung immediately dismissed.

Meanwhile, people have evaluated a description of her intimate relationship with Byeon Yang-kyoon, a former presidential aide, as the stuff of a third-rate gooey romance novel.

The mysterious Mr. C, a journalist-turned-politician who Shin claims sexually harassed her in a taxi, has been the subject of frenzied web searches in a quest to reveal the man's identity.

People's immediate response was that of curiosity, but soon it was replaced with scepticism, concern and even a boycott. Many Twitter users, recalling Shin's criminal records and scandals, felt offended by the way she gaining fame and financial profit from her immorality, and a book that has little positive impact on Korean society.

Sung Ryu (@DaveRyu) tweeted on March 24 [ko]:

@DaveRyu: 정작 진짜 박사학위를 가진 분들도 비정규직 시간강사로 지내면서 언제 정규직이 될지 모르는 판에 가짜 학위로 출세가도를 달렸던 신정아,,,대단하다,이젠 자서전으로 전국민 상대로 한판 벌일 모양이다.

@DaveRyu: Whilst people with real doctorate degrees work as part-time lecturers with bleak chance of being promoted to full-time positions, Shin Jeong-Ah achieved huge success with her fake degree… [sarcastically] Great! Now, with the memoir, she has started a national-scale scam.

Rampant voyeurism?

Aspiring teacher Hamir Park (@HamirPark) analyzed on March 23 that the unprecedented attention given to the book reflected rampant voyeurism in South Korean society [ko]:

@HamirPark: 신정아 출판 책이 왜이렇게 팔리는지 이해가 안간다. 안봐도 내용이 뻔하지 않나? 우리사회 관음증적 성격과 수준을 보여준다 생각한다.

@HamirPark: I don’t understand why Shin’s memoir is selling like crazy. Isn't the content of the book more than obvious? This phenomenon shows the extent of voyeurism in Korean society.

Kwon Hyuk-ju (@aamyyn), a Korean cartoonist, approached Shin's book from performance angle. Kwon saw the whole situation as something an art curator who often organized promotional events would have easily pulled off (March 24) [ko]:

@aamyyn: 신정아씨가 전직 큐레이터였다는 것을 감안하면 그녀는 이번 출판행사를 통해서 예술가로 전업선언을 한 것 같다. 세상을 향해 도발하고 있다. 이건 분명 퍼포먼스다.

@aamyyn: Consider that Shin Jeong-ah was once a curator. [The March 22] book promotion event signals her career shift from (a curator) to an artist. She is provoking the world. This is clearly a performance.

Pastor Jung-hoon Yoon (@JunghoonYoon) responded to a tweet pledging not to buy the book on March 24:

@JunghoonYoon: 만4천원에 고위 정치인 벌거 벗길 수 있으면 싼편일지도 ㅋ RT @patriamea: 시민의 잠재적 관음증을 자극하여 장사를 하려는 신정아와 출판사의 의도가 분명하기에 절대 이 책을 사보지 않겠다.

@JunghoonYoon: Well, 14,000 Korean Won (USD 12.6) [the price of Shin’s book] is not at all expensive if we treat it as money spent on seeing prominent politicians getting stripped down (in public). RT @patriamea It is evident that Shin Jeong-ah and her publisher want to wake up latent voyeurism in order to make sales. I will never buy this book.

The book has received massive publicity, whether good or bad. Its poor quality has had ‘real’ novelists tut-tutting over the furore. South Korean best-selling author, Gong Ji-young (@congjee) tweeted on March 24 [ko]:

@congjee: 신정아씨 책을 읽는데 생각보다 지루하다. (저는 취재대신 비 문학인의 수필을 거의 다 읽어요) 그냥 기자들이 호들갑 떨며 전해주는 이슈들만 찾아보는 것이 더 나을 듯. 글고 서문과 본문의 문장이 너무달라, 대필의혹이 상당히…논문 리포트도 대필이라는데

@congjee: I have read Shin Jeong-ah’s book and it is rather more boring than I expected. (FYI [for your information], I read it not because I have to write a news article about it, but because I read almost every essay written by non-professional writers). Rather than reading this book, it is better to search and read some of the (punchier) lines the journalists noisily feed you. The preface and body part are incongruous – to the point one can even raise suspicion on possible ghostwriting… I have heard that some of her dissertations were written by others as well.

Gong’s tweet immediately fired controversy and the possibility of ghostwriting made several headlines. Later on same day Gong tweeted back [ko]:

@congjee: 문제 많은 대한민국에서 신정아가 그렇게 중요한 뉴스인가? 어이가 없다.정말 기자들이 이렇게 하는 한 트윗하기 싫어진다. 나는 간단한 독후감을 썼고 그녀가 한 죄에 비해 과도한 마녀사냥에 시달린다고 생각했던 사람이다. 일이 이렇게까지 번지다니.

@congjee: In our country, which is ridden with so many problems, is Shin Jeong-ah really an important issue? [The whole situation] is ridiculous. I can not tweet [freely] if these journalists keep acting this way. I simply tweeted my [personal] review. And actually, I was the one who thought she was being unfairly punished, witch-hunted  for something she had not even committed. I had no idea things would turn out this way.

Another unexpected turnaround happened to Naver.com, South Korea's most visited website. Korea's blogger/citizen news website Wiki Tree posted [ko] a story revealing that Naver had taken the rare move of erasing possible real names of Mr. C from its search word list, even before anyone requested.

Naver claimed that this measure was taken to prevent libel cases, but it led net users to assume behind the scenes connections with the power figures mentioned on the book had influenced the move.

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