The Rise and Fall of a Korean Success Story

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.