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Public figures faked degrees in scandal rocking S. Korea

Shin Jeong-ah hid her face from reporters after arriving in New York on July 16. Her whereabouts are unknown. Shin Jeong-ah hid her face from reporters after arriving in New York on July 16. Her whereabouts are unknown. (Kim Hyun-jun/Yonhap via Associated Press)

SEOUL -- She was an up-and-coming South Korean curator known as the "art world's Cinderella" with a doctorate from Yale on her résumé.

That was before Shin Jeong-ah's academic credentials were found to be false, sending her into hiding and sparking a wave of revelations of faked diplomas that are shaking up South Koreans in all walks of life -- professors, actresses, a cartoonist, and even a Buddhist priest.

Prosecutors are investigating and universities and companies are running sweeping background checks, while other public figures are hastily correcting "slip-ups" on their résumés.

The scandal is also prompting a renewed look at South Korea's obsession with titles rather than merit, and the difficulties faced by a society rapidly modernizing while still steeped in Confucian values of scholarship and hierarchy.

In the latest revelation, singer-songwriter Joo Young-hoon's radio and television gigs were canceled last week after his agent revealed that Joo had lied on air when he said he was a graduate of George Mason University.

The scandals began last month after Shin, 35, was named joint artistic director of South Korea's 2008 Gwangju Biennale, the youngest such appointee chosen by the prestigious arts festival. But then rumors began circulating, questioning Shin's educational background, which included bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Kansas and a doctorate from Yale.

A committee at Dongguk University, where she was an associate professor of art history, concluded that her entire educational résumé was faked. She was alleged to have copied her purported Yale doctoral dissertation from a well-known 1989 work and to have dropped out of the University of Kansas after three years without earning a degree.

Shin has insisted that her Yale degree is real, and has gone to the United States to prove her contentions. Prosecutors plan to investigate her on charges of forgery and obstruction of business affairs, but their probe has been hindered because Shin has been out of the country since July 16 -- and her whereabouts remain unknown. Yale's public affairs office said Shin never attended the university. Todd Cohen, University of Kansas spokesman, said: "She did attend KU. She just didn't graduate."

Meanwhile, since the Shin affair broke, hardly a day has passed without other prominent citizens coming forward to acknowledge faked credentials or valueless college credentials, often American.

They include Lee Chang-ha, an architect and a lecturer at Kimcheon Science College, who claimed to have attended New Bridge University in Los Angeles as an undergraduate from 1992 to 1996, though that school only started its undergraduate program in 1995. He confessed to his lie in an e-mail to local media.

Theater actress Yoon Suk-hwa, known as South Korea's Meryl Streep, tearfully confessed at a news conference to lying for more than 30 years about having a diploma from New York University when she had only taken several courses at City University of New York.

Respected Buddhist priest Ji-gwang also told reporters that he never attended prestigious Seoul National University as he had claimed.

Cheong So-bok, author of a recent book examining contemporary Korean society, blames conflicts between tradition and speedy development.

"Rapid modernization in recent decades clashing with traditions and Confucian beliefs has created an ethical void that fails to identify individuals as themselves, only by their labels," he said.

Chung Jin-Soo, a theater professor at Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul, said the problem shows South Koreans need to focus more on merit.

"We need a set of fair-game rules that prevent academic credentials from being the sole judging criteria," he said. "The vanity pervasive in Korean society leading to individuals exaggerating their academic credentials -- this must stop."

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