Ewha University role scrutinised by corruption hearing

South Korea’s National Assembly last week focused on the role of the prestigious Ewha Womans University as part of its fourth round of hearings into an influence peddling scandal surrounding embattled South Korean President Park Geun-hye.

In an unprecedented move, on 9 December members of the assembly voted overwhelmingly to impeach Park over the wider scandal that had sparked huge protests in the country over several weeks.

Since early December the assembly has held four rounds of hearings, to gather evidence on whether Park’s close confidante Choi Soon-Sil used her friendship with Park to influence policy and wrongly secure millions of dollars in funding for her foundations from South Korean conglomerates.

The scandal engulfed Ewha University after it was alleged that Choi Soon-sil’s daughter Chung Yoo-ra received special treatment to be admitted under special rules for sports stars, and that professors at Ewha had given Chung undeserved grades, including for unsubmitted assignments.

After several weeks of investigation into Ewha, the Ministry of Education said on 18 November that Chung’s place at the university should be revoked after finding that the university had manipulated admissions rules to give her a place, and given her overly generous grades, allegedly because of pressure from her mother.

The former president of Ewha University, Choi Kyung-hee, who had been forced to resign from the university in October because of the scandal, was defiant as she faced lawmakers during the parliamentary hearing on Thursday, lawmakers said.


Despite the education ministry’s findings, lawmakers said Choi Kyung-hee, as well as Kim Kyung-Sook, a former dean of Ewha’s College of Science and Industry Convergence, and Namkung Gon, the university’s former admissions officer, all refused to take any responsibility for the Chung case.

They defended their actions to the hilt, according to radio broadcasts on the hearing.

The questioning lasted several hours but the former Ewha professors and administrators did not concede any wrongdoing. “The university [Ewha] carried out a probe into the matter and found there was no systemic preferential treatment for Chung,” Choi Kyung-hee told lawmakers.

"As the former president, I am very sorry that such things happened during my tenure. I have nothing to say, and I am terribly sorry," she said.

During probing questions on whether Choi Soon-sil exerted influence on the university, the former Ewha University president acknowledged that she had met Chung and her mother at the university in late 2015 but said she could not recall whether they complained about a professor for giving Chung a low grade.

During questioning Kim denied she had pressed other professors at Ewha to give Chung preferential treatment, even though another university official had told the ministry investigation he had received an order from the former admissions officer to admit Chung. Kim added during the hearing that giving grades was the right of professors.

An editorial published in Korea JoongAng Daily newspaper on Friday expressed amazement at the reactions of the former Ewha professors during the hearing.

“They were hell bent on defending themselves and not taking any responsibility for their shady actions a year ago. The hearing has raised serious questions about the extension of corruption in education circles,” the newspaper said.


The fifth parliamentary hearing on the scandal will be held this coming week. Lawmakers have summoned Choi Soon-sil for a second time, after she refused to appear at an earlier hearing, citing health issues.

Chung, 20, who also had her high school graduation annulled by the education office in Seoul after her grades and attendance records were found to have been fabricated and that she had not fulfilled the requirements to graduate, has been in Germany on leave of absence from Ewha since before the scandal broke. Her lawyer has said she will attend the hearings if summoned.

In a bid to avoid expulsion from the university, it emerged that she had applied to Ewha on 31 October to give up her place after the scandal broke but before the ministry investigation was completed, the university revealed in November.

However, the ministry had advised the university not to process the request until after the investigation, which itself recommended expulsion.

Some 17 professors and staff at Ewha, including Kim and Choi Kyung-hee are also being investigated separately by public prosecutors who ordered raids on the residences of Kim, Choi and Namkung in late November following raids on Ewha on 22 November.

“As we are investigating the Ewha case, Chung Yoo-ra will be questioned at some point,” a prosecution official said recently, declining to give a possible date.