Korean minister quits in row over daughter’s university place

Cho Kuk and his wife, both professors, are accused of giving their children unfair advantage in a deeply competitive education system

October 16, 2019
Seoul parliament
Source: iStock

A law professor has resigned as South Korea’s justice minister amid allegations that he and his wife garnered favours for at least one of their children in the country’s notoriously competitive education system.

Cho Kuk, a professor at Seoul National University, had been in office for just over a month. His wife, Chung Kyung-sim, a professor at Dongyang University, is scheduled to go on trial on charges that an education award was fabricated for the couple’s daughter, supposedly to help her gain admission to the medical school at Pusan National University.

The pair were also alleged to have had their daughter listed as an author on an academic medical paper when she was still in high school, and securing her internships and scholarships that did not reflect her academic performance. The prosecutor’s office has raided university offices and interviewed the family’s two children as part of their investigation.

Since Professor Cho’s nomination to the justice minister post in August, there have been mass protests – both by supporters seeing him as a political reformer, and by student groups criticising him for giving his children unfair advantage.

The students’ anger stems from South Korea’s high-pressure education system, in which young people’s futures are largely determined by the College Scholastic Ability Test (CSAT). The so-called Suneung national college entrance exam is a gruelling, day-long marathon. According to various sources, 85 per cent to 95 per cent of students prepare by attending after-hours cramming schools, called hagwon. Even then, only a small percentage are admitted to top-ranked institutions. Inequities at elite high schools and in university admissions have long been debated, but problems remain.

Chang Kim, director of the Korean Association of Human Resource Development, told Times Higher Education that “students are under tremendous stress to achieve good grades on the CSAT. South Korean parents also make every effort to enrol their children in prestigious universities.”

Dr Kim explained that, about 20 years ago, South Korean universities began using additional admissions criteria such as national awards, start-up business experience and publication in peer-reviewed journals. “It is hard to deny, in this institutional context, that children with influential or affluent parents have favourable environments to develop these qualities, relative to other competitors.”

Perhaps ironically, before the controversy over his post as justice minister, Professor Cho had criticised the Korean education system as being part of a “more unfair society”. At his parliamentary confirmation hearing in September, Professor Cho did not deny the allegations against him, but conveyed his “deepest apologies to the younger generation”.

joyce.lau@timeshighereducation.com

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