Push for jail terms over university admissions scandal

South Korea’s prestigious Ewha Womans University in Seoul – under the spotlight of investigations into a corruption scandal that led to the impeachment of the country’s former president Park Geun-hye in March – faces renewed scrutiny. State prosecutors are seeking a seven-year jail term for Park’s close friend Choi Soon-sil for facilitating her daughter’s admission to the university and for having her high school academic grades altered.

Choi’s daughter Chung Yoo-ra gained ‘illegal’ favourable admission to Ewha as an equestrian rather than on her academic record, according to a Ministry of Education investigation that led to the university revoking her place.

Chung was last week extradited from Denmark to South Korea to face questioning related to her preferential admission as well as bribery allegations involving technology giant Samsung – part of a larger investigation into her mother’s role in the corruption scandal that toppled Park.

At a hearing on Wednesday in a Seoul court, the special prosecuting team also sought a five-year prison term for former Ewha Womans University president Choi Kyung-hee, who resigned over the Chung scandal, and four years in jail for former dean of admissions Namkung Gon. 

Another half a dozen Ewha professors are being investigated over the case, including for allegedly writing Chung’s exams to ensure a passing grade although Chung had not been attending the university regularly.


Chung (20) was formally arrested on the plane before landing in South Korea on Wednesday. She was detained in Denmark late last year for overstaying her visa, and for five months evaded Korean prosecutor summonses to return for questioning.

She said on arrival at Incheon airport: “I thought it was best to tell my side of the story and resolve the misunderstandings,” adding that she had no knowledge of the ‘special treatment’ she allegedly received.

“I feel wrongfully accused.” But she said she had no objection to her admission to Ewha Womans University being cancelled. “I didn’t go to school, so I recognise that. I didn’t even know my major.”

Prosecutors cited a Facebook post by Chung boasting that “money equals ability”. In it she jeered at her peers for having parents with no connections – a post which has gone viral in Korea and angered many who see it as an example of how privileged families bypass Korea’s gruelling high-pressure system to get into the most prestigious universities.

Prosecutors said the case “goes beyond a typical instance of a parent's love for her child leading to illegal acts in gaining her admission to university, but constitutes a case of abuse of the education system by crooked educators who cooperated with influential people to advance themselves in society”.

In a previous statement, Chung’s mother Choi claimed she never gave any money to Ewha, made no demands, and was the victim of an obscure plot.

Damage control

Ewha Womans University has been scrambling to recover from the fallout and damage to its reputation.

On 26 May the university announced a new president elected by a first-ever direct vote of all students, faculty members and administrative staff after the post was left vacant since October when the previous university president resigned over the Chung scandal.

“I will return Ewha to its original state and restore its honour,” said Kim Hei-sook, the new president, who garnered just over 57% of the vote involving almost 25,000 students, staff and alumni.

“The key task is to build trust,” she added, referring to deep divisions within the university over the handling of the Chung case.

Kim, a philosophy professor who has been teaching at Ewha since 1987, was among the professors to oppose the way the Chung case was handled by her predecessor.

The university’s direct vote was introduced in response to student demands for a voice, after major clashes at the university over policies, including one last year when the university attempted to ram through a plan to set up a night institute for women who had not had the opportunity of a university education.

That plan is part of the prosecution’s wider corruption investigation into whether significant extra government funding linked to the project was a possible payback for Chung’s admission to Ewha.

At the time, Kim led faculty protests against the decision and backed the students.

Photo credit: Yonhap