The great pretenders

Student Sara Kim appearing in a news clip on Korea's YTN news channel. The 18-year-old, once hailed as a maths prodigy, was found to have lied about being accepted into Harvard and Stanford.
Student Sara Kim appearing in a news clip on Korea's YTN news channel. The 18-year-old, once hailed as a maths prodigy, was found to have lied about being accepted into Harvard and Stanford.PHOTO: YOUTUBE

Maths prodigy who wasn't revives debate over S. Korea's degree obsession

Eighteen-year-old Sara Kim was quickly hailed as a "maths prodigy" by South Korea's media after she claimed that top US universities Harvard and Stanford had created a unique programme to jointly recruit her.

But her fall from grace was equally swift.

Both universities have denied accepting the student from Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Virginia, and her father, who had bragged about her, has since issued a public apology.

The controversy, which unfolded over the last two weeks, has revived a debate about the nation's unhealthy obsession with academic elitism. The Korea Herald newspaper called it a "twisted obsession with degrees".

Miss Kim, who has since returned to South Korea, is just the latest in a string of academic forgery cases in a country where people are commonly judged on their educational background and even entertainers in show business are expected to hold degrees from reputable universities.

A cable talk show called Desire For Grades offers tips on how to get into SKY, an acronym for the top three tertiary institutions - Seoul National University, Korea University and Yonsei University.

The heavy emphasis on academic excellence has resulted in numerous cases of top talents faking their educational background, said

Kyunghyang Shinmun newspaper.

It cited the high-profile case of Shin Jeong Ah who was jailed in 2007 for faking her master's degrees from Yale in order to become an art history professor, as well as cartoonist Lee Hyun Se and theatre actress Yoon Suk Hwa, who also forged their educational records.

"Academic elitism has been prevalent in the South Korean society and entering prestigious colleges has become an end goal of education for many students," Associate Professor Bogum Yoon of Binghamton University wrote in the book An International Look At Educating Young Adolescents.

"Proof of educational accomplishments, such as diplomas from first-rate universities, greatly affects a person's acceptability in employment, marriage and even interpersonal relations."

A recent study found that nearly 90 per cent of 418 firms surveyed admitted that brand-name universities determined their hiring decisions. A prestigious degree is viewed as a measure of one's effort and ability, they said.

In Miss Kim's case, she first made headlines in the US edition of JoongAng Ilbo early this month.

The story of a Korean teenager made good in the US, with both Harvard and Stanford vying to recruit her due to her top scores in mathematics, soon made its rounds in the media in South Korea.

In a phone interview with CBS radio, Miss Kim introduced herself in a cheerful voice as "a student who enjoys studying maths and computer science".

Of the "joint admission", she said: "As far as I know, there's no such joint admission programme... they made this specially for me."

Giggling, she went on to describe how excited she was when she received a personal call from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

"I couldn't believe it and asked if he's really Mark Zuckerberg... We had a short chat about my project and he asked me to go to California, but it's too far. My mother wouldn't allow it."

She also told South Korea's JTBC cable network that Mr Zuckerberg "asked me to go work for him after I graduate". She added that it is not easy for a foreigner to succeed in the US, but she managed to do so by "believing in myself".

According to the Journalists Association of Korea, no media outlet had doubted Miss Kim as her background was credible - her grandfather was a minister and her father is a former journalist now working for an online game developer.

But questions raised among the Korean community in the US prompted South Korean newspapers to check with the universities.

Her father then issued an apology, insisting that it was his fault.

"I am deeply repentant that I failed to realise what a painful and difficult situation my child had been in so far, and that I even aggravated her suffering," he wrote in a letter to the media, according to Yonhap News.

"From now on, our family will live a quiet life, devoting ourselves to caring for our child."

The teenager was last seen arriving at Incheon International Airport on June 12. She was wearing a mask and was escorted by an acquaintance. There have been no more updates on her since.

But there are claims on social media site Reddit that Miss Kim is a serial liar who went as far as posting photos of herself visiting the Harvard campus on Facebook.

Her story has exposed "the dark side of our society", said Emeritus Professor Im Kay Soon of Hanyang University, who feels the younger generation is put under too much pressure to excel academically.

"We should change the system of evaluating one's qualifications. Educational background should not be the first priority," she said.

changmc@sph.com.sg

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 21, 2015, with the headline 'The great pretenders'. Print Edition | Subscribe