The Rise and Fall of a Korean Success Story

An academic scandal in Seoul’s
art world brings a high-flying young woman down to earth.

Curator of a major Seoul
museum, professor at an elite university and co-director of the Gwangju Biennale,
the country’s premier art event, at 35, Shin Jeong-ah had risen quickly to the
top of South Korea’s
fine art scene.

Too quickly, it turns out. Shortly after being named to the
biennale post on July 4, what had seemed only to be jealous whispering in the
bitchy corridors of the art world and academe turned out to be true: Shin was a
fraud.

The two degrees that she claimed from Kansas
University and a 2005 Yale University
doctorate did not exist. Her Yale dissertation, titled Guillaume
Apollinaire: Catalyst for primitivism, for Picabia and Duchamp
, turned
out to have been submitted to the University of Virginia
in 1981 by another woman.

Shin, who was in Paris at the
time the scandal broke last week, denied the charges, then returned home
briefly over the weekend, went into hiding and left the country for New York
on Monday. A local television network reported she told friends she was going
to Yale University to investigate her own
academic records.

When she presented her credentials to Dongguk University
last year, unfortunately, their background investigation did not go very far.
The university never received a reply from Kansas University
to a request to verify records, and they accepted a fax supposedly from Yale as
enough evidence to prove that Shin held a doctorate. A former member of the
school’s board of trustees has come forward to say he raised questions at the
time about her credentials, but was dismissed from the board for his efforts because
he was disgracing the school with “groundless suspicion.”

Now the disgrace is deeper than the university could have
imagined. “Yale sent a reply saying that the university hadn’t granted her a
doctoral degree and that there was no record of a student named Shin Jeong-ah,”
a Dongguk University spokesman said last week.
Yale also said the fax that supposedly confirmed Shin’s credentials was a fake.

Kansas University said that Shin attended classes there from
1992 to 1996 but she never graduated, according to a Kansas newspaper quoting Todd Cohen,
University Relations director.

In a country where scandals involving tycoons and
politicians are almost daily news fodder, the demise of Shin, a beautiful and
seemingly talented product of Korea’s
vaunted meritocracy, has captured the public imagination. Naver, the country’s
most popular Internet search engine, reported that her name was its No. 1
search topic over the weekend. Television crews and newspapers have been
breathlessly seeking out any scrap of information available on the scam artist.

Korean commentators have begun calling her a “female Hwang
Woo-suk,” in reference to the scientist whose faked research on the cloning of
human stem cells led to a round of national shame and breast-beating when it
was uncovered last year. “Our society needs to take a good look at itself and
think about whether she wasn’t encouraged to gamble with falsifying her
credentials because of our society’s excessive worship of academic degrees,” read
an editorial in the Hankyoreh newspaper.

Soon the search may be joined by prosecutors. Officials of
the Gwangju Biennale, after confirming with Yale that her degree was
fraudulent, cancelled her appointment and have asked the Seoul prosecutors office to investigate her
on possible criminal charges. The university may also press charges. She faces
dismissal from her university post.

Her mother, Lee Won-ok, has stepped up to claim that her
daughter is the real deal. “Why is the media burying a person who has done
nothing wrong?” Lee asked, according to the magazine Monthly Joongang. “I
believe in my daughter, not because we are family but because what she says is
all true.”

It seems that a lot of people believed in Shin as she rose
through the clubby ranks of Seoul’s
fine art dealers and patrons. In 1997, one year after quitting Kansas University,
she charmed her way into a job at the Kumho
Museum in Seoul, the JoongAng Daily newspaper reported.
Claiming to have the two degrees from Kansas,
she parlayed a job as a part-time English-language museum guide into replacing
a bickering curator. From there, she used “brazen self-promotion and outright
theft of other people’s ideas” to fuel her rise, the newspaper said, citing her
colleagues and friends. “She had a way of handling people and getting their
attention,” the newspaper said, quoting a Seoul
art curator.

By 2002 Shin had moved on to the Sungkok
Museum, one of Seoul’s best known museums, as its chief
curator. There she mounted several major exhibitions, including a 40th
anniversary exhibition of the English illustrator John Burningham last year,
and a show that is still up by American photographer William Wegman. The museum
told the JoongAng Daily that it didn’t verify her academic background.

The appointment to the Dongguk University
faculty last year and the post with the Gwangju Biennale put her at the very
pinnacle of her profession. She rose too high too fast, it seems, to avoid
scrutiny.

Shin, for the moment at least, has disappeared. If she were
to return from her visit to New York,
she would face the relentless pursuit of the media and possible jail time as a
result of her fraud. Her loyal mother insists, however, that her only daughter
is coming home. She was quoted in the Monthly Joongang saying that she had
spoken to her while she was still in Paris last week and been assured that
everything will be fine. “You know me, mom. I will go back to Korea soon and take care of it.”

A tantalizing explanation for Shin’s desperate and
ultimately perilous scramble to the top may lie in Korea’s worst peacetime disaster.
In 1995, when Shin was just 23, she was buried in the collapse of the Sampoong
Department Store in Seoul.
Trapped in the rubble for 24 hours, she was one of the lucky survivors of a
disaster that killed 501 people.

Telling her story later to the monthly Chosun Magazine, Shin
said the disaster completely changed her life. Once shy and unassertive, she told
the magazine she vowed to change.

“A beach towel wrapped itself around my face and saved it
from harm,” she told the magazine. “Because my face was OK, I have my second
life and I'm very lucky. Everything is very easy for me. Before the disaster I
was a very introverted character. Now I am aggressive. After surviving Sampoong
I developed a very powerful driving force and sense of initiative.”

It was later established that the Sampoong collapse was
caused by faulty supporting columns and a poor structural framework added to
the fact that the impressive-looking new store was built by crooked businessmen
on an unstable landfill.  Like Shin’s
academic career, the building ultimately rested on shaky ground.

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