Education minister nominee pulls out over allegations

Nominee for education minister and deputy prime minister of South Korea Kim In-chul has had to withdraw over allegations of misconduct during his term as president of Hankuk University of Foreign Studies and separate allegations that he favoured family members for prestigious Fulbright scholarships to study in the United States.

During an emergency press conference on 3 May, just days before the 6 May National Assembly confirmation hearing, Kim In-chul, who was nominated as education minister and deputy prime minister on 13 April following the presidential elections that brought Yoon Suk-yeol to power, said: “I am to withdraw today.”

He added: “I wanted to return the benefits I have received from the nation and people by serving, but I did not meet expectations.” Kim did not take any questions on the allegations of family favouritism, saying: “I won’t give any explanation. It’s all my fault and my negligence.”

Kim had faced criticism from within his own party after it was found that his wife and two children had received scholarships from the Fulbright Commission while he held official positions at Fulbright organisations in Korea.

The Ministry of Education put out a statement quoting Kim as saying he stepped back as he had concerns over his family’s futures, and also said he wanted to eliminate the possibility of his “beloved students” being called to the confirmation hearing and subjected to harsh questioning.

The ability of prominent people to gain educational favours for their offspring or the children of friends is a highly emotive issue in South Korea, with former president Park Geun-hye tainted by university admissions favours for a close friend’s daughter, which in part led to Park’s impeachment in March 2017.

The latest debacle also has echoes of the case of Cho Kuk, justice minister under outgoing president Moon Jae-in, who was dogged during the nomination confirmation process by accusations that his daughter received favourable consideration for admissions to medical school. Although Cho made it through the confirmation process, he was later forced to resign as justice minister.

Two universities – Pusan National University and Korea University – last month revoked the admission of Cho’s daughter on the grounds of false information provided by her parents to gain her place after investigations were carried out by the universities and the education ministry.

Controversy over Fulbright scholarships

Kim, a former Fulbright Scholar in the 1990s when he was a visiting professor at Johns Hopkins University in the United States, was president of the Korea Fulbright Alumni Association from 2012-15 and served as an auditor for the Korea Fulbright Foundation on two occasions – in 2011 and also 2014-18.

During that time, his daughter received a KRW100 million (US$79,000) Fulbright Scholarship in 2014 to pursue a two-year masters degree at Cornell University, while his son gained a Fulbright Scholarship in 2016 and studied at Columbia University.

Ha Tae-keung, a lawmaker with Yoon’s People Power Party (PPP), noted during a radio interview that an entire family getting the same scholarship would sound extreme to most people.

“Even if they were qualified, it is perceived to be too much and [they would] think he [Kim] was pursuing his own interests,” Ha said.

The Fulbright Scholarship programme is run by the non-profit Korean-American Educational Commission, which is jointly sponsored by Seoul and Washington to promote bilateral educational exchanges. Kang Min-jung, a lawmaker with the ruling Democratic Party of Korea, estimated the total value of Fulbright scholarships awarded to Kim’s family could amount to between KRW300 million (US$237,000) and KRW400 million (US$316,000).

Kang said Kim’s spouse was an exchange professor at Temple University in the US under the scholarship scheme between 2004 and 2005 while she was also a professor at Soongsil University in Seoul, and said the scholarships raised questions of preferential treatment for Kim’s family members.

“Only a limited number of Koreans are selected for the Fulbright Scholarship programme every year, but all of Kim’s family members benefited from the programme,” he said, adding that it required an investigation.

Kim last week denied the allegations, saying it would have been “impossible” for him to have intervened in the scholarship selection process and argued that all procedures were fair.

That same day the parliamentary confirmation hearing team for the education ministry that represented Kim released a statement denying the allegations. “Suggesting Kim’s family was selected as recipients because Kim was the head of the Korea Fulbright Alumni Association is only an allegation without any evidence,” it said.

Kim, who has a doctorate in politics from the University of Delaware in the US, was elected as president of Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in 2014. He served as head of the Korean Association of Private University Presidents from 2018 to 2020 and then as chairperson of the Korean Council for University Education until recently.

Other allegations

He has faced a raft of allegations prior to the confirmation hearings.

Another Democratic Party lawmaker Park Chan-dae alleged Kim improperly held an additional position in private industry while head of Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. Kim had worked as a non-executive director of Lotte Chemical, then Lotte Advanced Materials, Park said.

“It is rare for a local university president to hold an additional post, furthermore [it was] at a company irrelevant to his subject of study,” Park said, questioning whether the university could properly vet the post and give permission while Kim had the right to give final approval.

Korea’s Education Officials Act requires university professors to have approval from the university’s head to hold any additional paid-for position.

Kim has also been criticised for mistreating students after videos surfaced showing him yelling at students protesting against university policies. The student committee at Hankuk held a protest last week calling for Kim to step down as the nominee for the ministerial post.

Kim is additionally accused by lawmakers of collecting inappropriate information on students’ parents. In 2015, the university ran a survey on students asking if their parents were high-ranking public officials, lawmakers, doctors or held other socially influential professions.

More admissions scandals alleged

Kim is not the only Yoon nominee facing allegations of education-related favours.

While he was president of Kyungpook National University Hospital in the south-eastern city of Daegu, Yoon’s nominee for health minister, Chung Ho-young, is accused of arranging special treatment for admission to a medical school for two of his children.

His daughter applied for admission to an affiliated medical school in 2017 when Chung was vice president of Kyungpook National University Hospital, while his son applied in 2018 while Chung was president.

Chung and ‘close acquaintances’, two of whom had co-authored papers with Chung, were said to be members of an evaluation committee that gave Chung’s daughter a perfect score in her oral evaluation for admission.

“I have never wrongfully used my position for my children,” Chung was quoted as saying by Korean news agency Yonhap on Sunday.