University probed over ‘favours’ for president’s friend
Among the allegations against Choi, a lifelong friend of Park, is that she influenced the appointment of ministers. But allegations that she also used her influence to get her daughter Chung Yoo-ra, 19, admitted to Ewha Womans University in Seoul – one of the country’s top universities – led to the resignation of the embattled Ewha Womans University president, Choi Kyung-hee, on 19 October.
The Ministry of Education said on 31 October that it had launched a special investigation into allegations that the university gave Chung special treatment.
Choi Soon-sil was detained by prosecutors for questioning on Tuesday and they have asked the Seoul Central Court to issue a warrant for her arrest, The Korea Times reported.
Prosecutors are set to investigate whether Choi used her relationship with the president to gain access to classified documents that enabled her to influence government affairs and that she benefited personally through non-profit foundations, according to Reuters.
The education ministry said it would dispatch a 12-strong inspection team to the Ewha Womans University to look into whether the institution had added equestrianism to the list of sports eligible for preferential treatment to student athletes, in order to enable Chung, a member of the Korean national dressage team, to gain a place.
"We'll look into whether the change in the school rule, which was found to be favourable to the student, was made under proper procedures, and whether professors applied fair standards in evaluating her [Chung’s] attendance and assignments," Education Minister Lee Joon-sik told the National Assembly on 17 October, and revealed that the ministry had already requested Ewha submit all relevant documents.
Equestrian sports were added to the list of Ewha’s eligible sports categories when they were expanded from 11 sports to 23 for the 2015 academic year, just before Chung was admitted.
Chung had acquired a gold medal at the September 2014 Asian Games in Incheon, four days after submitting her university application but in time to wear the medal at her admissions interview.
Academics say it is highly unusual for athletes to attend university interviews wearing their medals.
The investigation is the fallout of a much larger political crisis involving President Park’s confidante who is accused of influence peddling, meddling in state affairs, pressuring companies to donate to foundations that she benefited from and other alleged misdemeanours. So far she has not made a statement publicly.
Thousands marched in Seoul and attended mass candlelight vigils on Saturday 29 October. During the previous week a number of student groups at several universities issued declarations criticising Park’s handling of the Choi affair.
Students at Ewha Womans University alleged in a statement: "Not only the president's speech scripts but also diplomacy and security files and even the content of telephone calls with foreign heads of states were reported to Choi. This is a clear violation of the constitutional order.”
Park’s alma mater Sogang University went as far as to urge Park “not to disgrace the school anymore”, and called on her to step down “if the truth is found and people lose confidence in the president”.
Park had already issued a public apology on 25 October and denied all allegations of wrong-doing, admitting only that Choi had edited some of her speeches, although email exchanges from a computer discarded by Choi and obtained by a local television network appear to show that Choi provided Park advice on different issues.
While the wider investigation has rocked the country, the outcome of the Ministry of Education’s investigation could have serious repercussions for Chung’s own sports career and Ewha Womans University, which has already lost its president over the affair.
In March this year the Ministry of Education and Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism jointly drew up new measures against corruption and admissions irregularities involving athletes. Under these measures Chung’s place at the university could be cancelled if the allegations are proven to be true. She could also be expelled from sports, ending her promising equestrian career.
The university itself could face punitive measures, including a 10% cutback in its intake in the next academic year.
Although Chung’s mother is facing other serious corruption allegations relating to her political influence over the president, Choi Soon-sil could also be charged with soliciting favours from university admissions offices.
Parliamentarian An Min-suk of the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea has alleged Choi Soon-sil had visited the university “to hand over bribes” to stop her daughter being expelled. Choi has yet to respond to the allegation.
Among other serious allegations being investigated by the Ministry of Education is one raised by Kim Byung-uk, a parliamentarian of the opposition Minjoo Party, based on the documents submitted by Ewha University suggesting that professors gave Chung generous grades despite long absences from classes and missed assignments.
The Ministry of Education, inspecting the documents relating to Chung’s case, reportedly found she was given generous grades for assignments she did not hand in, though this was also the case for other students admitted under the special scheme for athletes.
According to the university’s own internal regulations that came into force in 2015, students who perform well in athletics and artistic pursuits can receive at least a grade B or above in other academic subjects – without necessarily taking the exams or submitting assignments.
In mid-October Ewha professors were so concerned about the impact of the allegations that they set up their own investigative committee and also wrote a letter to Ewha’s president calling for full disclosures on Chung, who is currently on leave of absence from the university.
“A lot of suspicions have tarnished Ewha’s reputation as well as affronted professors and students,” the professors said in their statement.
The Ewha Students Association, which had had previous run-ins with university President Choi over the setting up of a college of continuing education on the campus, demanded anew that she step down, and were joined later by professors – the first time in the university’s 130 year history that Ewha professors called on the university head to resign.
“Ewha Womans University, which has been under fire for its plans to build a college of continuing education, is now mired in a political issue,” said an emergency planning committee of Ewha professors in an official statement. “University President Choi Kyung-hee and the board of directors are handling the issues at the school dictatorially and failing to communicate with the university staff and students.”
At a closed-door meeting with students and professors on 17 October, the embattled university president denied admissions fraud but admitted there had been “partial mismanagement” in the handing out of some of Chung’s grades. Two days later President Choi resigned her post which she had held since 2014. She insisted in her resignation letter: "I swear there was no favouritism involving the student. That is not simply possible at Ewha.”
Some critics are urging the ministry to widen its investigation to look into the allegations that Ewha secured eight projects funded by the Education Ministry, including the college of continuing education, as a "reward” for providing special treatment to Chung.
University World News Asia Editor Yojana Sharma contributed to this article.