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(News Focus) Cho Kuk row hits nerve with weary Korean parents, students

Politics 17:21 September 17, 2019

By Lee Minji

SEOUL, Sept. 17 (Yonhap) -- Law professor Cho Kuk's appointment as South Korea's justice minister was one rocky road.

The liberal darling, tasked with reforming the prosecution, faced expected opposition from conservative lawmakers and underwent friction with state prosecutors.

But some of the most dogged and powerful opposition came from a very nonpolitical crowd: parents and students who are going through or have survived the country's cutthroat college admission system.

In a country where the name of your alma mater forms an important part of your reputation, allegations that Cho and his professor wife helped their daughter build a fancy portfolio that landed her in a prestigious university and medical school sparked fury.

The fact that Cho was a vocal advocate of a fair society who was not afraid to bash chaebol clans and powerful politicians for reaping privileges fueled the anger.

During high school, Cho's daughter co-authored a medical paper at a college lab, a feat opponents claim is not feasible for a teenaged intern. As an undergraduate, she simultaneously juggled summer internships and volunteer work, raising views she may have exaggerated her resume.

Justice Minister Cho Kuk (R) poses with President Moon Jae-in as he is being sworn in at Cheong Wa Dae in Seoul on Sept. 9, 2019. (Yonhap)

Acknowledging the public's disappointment, Cho apologized: "(I) disappointed and hurt the young generation. Regardless of the legal issues, I am sorry to the students and the people."

The justice minister, however, flatly denied any illegality in the process, stressing that his daughter's academic track remains within the boundary of the law.

The only education-related issue that prosecutors are investigating is his wife's alleged fabrication of a college award that some argue may have helped their daughter enter medical school.

Cho eventually took office earlier this month as President Moon Jae-in appointed him by explaining it would be a "bad precedent" not to appoint Cho based solely on the doubts that have yet to be confirmed.

However, public sentiment still remains sour. A Sept. 9 poll of 501 adults by Realmeter shows that even after the appointment, 49.6 percent of the respondents think it was a bad decision, with a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points and a confidence level of 95 percent.

Students at prestigious Seoul National University, Yonsei University and Korea University, schools better known by the acronym SKY, plan to hold a candlelight vigil Thursday in protest of Cho's appointment, backing allegations that his daughter unfairly entered prestigious schools.

Seoul National University students hold a candlelight protest opposing Cho Kuk's appointment on Aug. 28, 2019. Cho, a law professor at the school, is a graduate himself. (Yonhap)

At the center of this negativity are parents and students worn out from the country's notorious competition to enter college. They question whether this system is fair and transparent and, ultimately, necessary.

Under the current "hakjong" system, roughly seven out of 10 students enter college through an evaluation of their extracurricular activities and school grades, in contrast to the "suneung" system, in which students across the nation take an entrance exam on one single day.

In theory, the current system that stems from the U.S. college admission system was devised to encourage students to explore various activities amid criticism that the point-based suneung system fosters private-sector education, best represented by cram schools.

However, critics say the competition to build the perfect portfolio has gone overboard and is only beneficial for students who have powerful parents that can support various activities.

In fact, a report compiled by ruling Democratic Party Rep. Kim Byung-wook showed that students who were admitted to the country's most prestigious Seoul National University on average volunteered 139 hours and received 30 awards throughout high school. One student had even won 108 awards.

So-called educational consultants lure parents with costly programs that promise to build an impeccable resume and a solid personal story that will get their children into college.

"The hakjong system has its advantages, but public distrust in the policy is high due to views that it helps students from influential families," Kim said.

Parents of students who are seniors in high school touch the bell at Bosingak in central Seoul on Aug. 6, 2019, 100 days ahead of this year's college entrance exam, praying for their children. (Yonhap)

Parents also stressed the need for a level playing field where students, not parents, are the players.

"As a parent, I completely empathize with Cho's wife. I try to provide the best for my children as long as it's not illegal," said a mother of two high school students who asked not to be named, admitting that she has also helped secure internship programs for her children.

"However, I feel it's an unfair system for parents without the time, energy or social ties. They cannot provide the same for their children," she said.

In a televised statement on Sept. 9, President Moon Jae-in stressed that his cabinet has striven to correct privileges and unfairness that are rife in Korean society.

"We will reform policies that serve as a wellspring for vested interests and irrationality that put our people in despair," he said, specifically mentioning plans to review policies that might deter fairness in college admission.

"(We will) try to remove the negative factors in the policy as the public feels the (hakjong system) has unfair elements," echoed Deputy Prime Minister Yoo Eun-hae, who doubles as education minister.

"On a positive note, I think the Cho Kuk scandal raised the need for a fair and transparent process for all students regardless of who their parents are," the parent said.


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