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Coddling of ‘Gold-Spoon’ Children Shakes South Korea’s Political Elite

SEOUL, South Korea — The biggest political crisis for President Moon Jae-in of South Korea — weeks of large protests that have tarnished his image and forced his justice minister to resign — started with an obscure medical research paper.


The paper, published by a team of university researchers in the Korean Journal of Pathology in 2009, listed as its lead author the daughter of a professor, Cho Kuk, who would go on to become justice minister under Mr. Moon. But in August, a local newspaper revealed that the daughter’s achievement had come after only a two-week internship with the team while she was still a high school student.

这篇由一个大学研究团队于2009年发表在《韩国病理学杂志》(Korean Journal of Pathology)上的论文,将曹国(Cho Kuk)教授的女儿列为第一作者。曹国后来成为文在寅的法务部长官。但今年8月,一家地方报纸爆料,他女儿的这项成就是在她还是一名高中生的时候,在该研究团队仅实习了两周之后取得的。

The revelation infuriated South Korean students, who saw it as all the proof they needed to demand that Mr. Cho be fired, and they declared Mr. Moon’s promise to create “a world without privilege” a lie.


The scandal has exploded into the biggest embarrassment of Mr. Moon’s presidency as he has struggled with an ailing economy and a lack of opportunity for many young people. It has particularly fueled outrage about the “gold spoon” children of the elite, who glide into top-flight universities and cushy jobs, leaving their “dirt spoon” peers to struggle in South Korea’s hobbled economy.


The tale of the implausible academic feat by the justice minister’s daughter crystallized that resentment.


“The paper is so technical I can’t even understand its title even though I am a chemical and biological engineering major,” Hong Jin-woo, a graduate student at Seoul National University, said during one of the first campus protests against Mr. Cho in August. “Is it possible for a high school intern to plan and conduct lab experiments and draft and revise such a paper, all within two weeks?”

“这篇论文的技术难度这么大,我连它的题目都看不懂,尽管我是化工和生物工程专业的学生。”首尔大学(Seoul National University)研究生洪津宇(Hong Jin-woo,音)参加今年8月校园里首次爆发的针对曹国的一次抗议活动时说。“一个高中实习生有可能在两周时间里,在实验室策划并进行这些实验,起草和修改这样的论文吗?”

“Never,” he said. “But it became possible because she had Professor Cho as a parent.”


Mr. Cho was a celebrity professor at Seoul National University School of Law before Mr. Moon made him a presidential secretary last year, promoting him to justice minister in August. Students suspected that Mr. Cho’s influence helped his daughter, Cho Min, be named as lead author on the research paper, and that the paper subsequently helped her gain admission to the prestigious Korea University in Seoul in 2010. The research paper was retracted by the journal last month in the face of mounting public outrage.

曹国曾是首尔大学法学院的知名教授,去年,文在寅将他任命为总统秘书,并在今年8月提拔他为法务部长官。学生们怀疑,曹国的影响力帮助他的女儿曹敏(Cho Min,音)被列为这篇研究论文的第一作者,而这篇论文后来帮助她在2010年进入了首尔著名的高丽大学(Korea University)。面对公众日益高涨的愤怒情绪,该学术杂志上个月撤销了这篇研究论文。

Mr. Cho’s wife, a professor, is already on trial on charges of fabricating an award certificate from her university’s president to help her daughter’s admission to medical school in 2015. Prosecutors are also investigating accusations that Mr. Cho’s wife fabricated an internship certificate from the Korea Institute for Science and Technology for the same purpose. After her admission to medical school, Mr. Cho’s daughter received scholarships over six consecutive terms, although her family was wealthy and she failed to achieve excellent grades.

曹国的妻子也是一名教授,为了帮助女儿在2015年进入医学院,她伪造了一份来自她所在大学校长的奖状,并因此在法院受审。检方还在调查曹国的妻子为同一目的伪造韩国科学技术院(Korea Institute for Science and Technology)实习证明的指控。曹国的女儿进入医学院后,连续六学期获得奖学金,尽管她家境富裕,成绩也不理想。

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The revelations have convulsed a country that only two and a half years ago saw the ouster of Mr. Moon’s predecessor and conservative enemy, Park Geun-hye, in a scandal that erupted over academic favoritism shown to the daughter of a close friend of Ms. Park.


When Mr. Moon took office the following year, his central promise was to create a level playing field for all South Koreans, who have grown tired of excesses widely reported among the country’s rich and well-connected.


The first student protests against Mr. Moon, in August, started small, involving a few hundred people across a few college campuses. But they helped fuel much bigger protests that have since filled downtown Seoul.


Mr. Cho stepped down this month, and both he and Mr. Moon apologized for disappointing young people, but Mr. Moon’s once solid support among the young has plummeted, polls show.


“We have grown up believing that everyone will have the same opportunities to enter good universities as long as we work hard,” said Park Min-hoe, a student at Sookmyung Women’s University in Seoul. “But we learned through this scandal that such a rule doesn’t apply in reality.”

“我们从小以为,只要努力学习,每个人都有同样的机会进入好大学,”首尔淑明女子大学(Sookmyung Women’s University)学生朴敏昊(Park Min-hoe,音)说。“但我们从这起丑闻中了解到,这个规则在现实中并不适用。”

“We wanted to punish the government for betraying our hopes for fairness,” she added.


In the decades after the 1950-53 Korean War, poor South Korean families cherished their country’s education system as a way for “a dragon to rise from a humble ditch” — or for their children to climb the social ladder. But South Koreans’ confidence in education as a great equalizer has dissipated with the scandals in recent years, as they have seen the rich and powerful rig the country’s university-admission system to favor their own children.


In South Korea, white-collar workers’ salaries and job titles in their 60s can often be predicted by which university they attended. The jostling for position starts in kindergarten, with some rich parents spending thousands of dollars a month on private tutoring to help their children secure spots in elite prep schools and top universities.


Well-connected families often resort to dubious tactics to get their children into the best universities, such as helping them land coveted internships at big corporations, research think tanks and university labs, which offer opportunities to get credit on research papers.

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The Education Ministry’s audits of universities since 2017 have uncovered 794 research papers where middle school or high school students were listed as co-authors, including at least 11 where professors named their own children as co-authors. When economists from Seoul National University compared two boroughs of Seoul in 2014, they found that children from the wealthier borough were 20 times more likely to enter the university, the country’s most coveted, than children from the other.


South Korean TV dramas and movies, such as Bong Joon Ho’s latest film, “Parasite,” have attracted huge audiences by fictionalizing the divide between the so-called gold-spoon children and their less well-to-do dirt-spoon peers.

韩国电视剧和电影,比如奉俊昊(Bong Joon Ho)执导的新片《寄生虫》(Parasite),通过所谓的“金汤匙”孩子与他们不那么富裕的“土汤匙”孩子差异的虚构故事,吸引了大量观众。

“South Korean millennials consider fairness the most important value — an attitude the older generations have failed to understand,” said Ahn Byong-jin, a political scientist at Kyung Hee University in Seoul. As the economy has slowed and attractive jobs have become harder to come by, they have become more sensitive to the “fair rules of game,” Mr. Ahn said.

“韩国千禧一代认为公平是最重要的价值观,而老一辈人不理解这种态度,”庆熙大学(Kyung Hee University)首尔校区的政治学教授安炳镇(Ahn Byong-jin,音)说。随着经济放缓,有吸引力的工作越来越难找,他们对“公平的游戏规则”变得更加敏感,安炳镇说。

The case that took down President Park — leading to the first such impeachment in South Korean history — was emblematic of such favoritism, and was set off when students at Ewha Woman’s University in Seoul began organizing rallies against her government in 2016.

让朴槿惠下台、导致韩国历史上首次弹劾总统的案件就是这种特别关照的典型。引发这一切的是2016年,首尔梨花女子大学(Ewha Woman’s University)学生开始组织反对朴槿惠政府的集会。

The students had learned that Choi Soon-sil, a secret friend of Ms. Park, used her influence with the president to force Ewha to enroll her daughter, Chung Yoo-ra, in 2015 ahead of better-qualified applicants. Ewha professors gave Ms. Chung good grades, even though she later said she hardly knew what her major was because she seldom attended classes.

学生们得知,朴槿惠的闺蜜崔顺实(Choi Soon-sil)利用自己对总统的影响力,迫使梨大在2015年录取了自己的女儿郑维罗(Chung Yu-ra),而不是比她更有资格的申请者。梨大教授们给了郑维罗很好的成绩,尽管她后来说,她几乎不知道学的是什么专业,因为很少去上课。

Ms. Choi and Ms. Park were also convicted of conspiring to collect $7.3 million in bribes, including three thoroughbred horses, from Samsung, South Korea’s largest conglomerate, to support Ms. Chung’s equestrian career.


Ms. Chung infamously belittled her less-privileged friends in a Facebook post. “You’ve got nothing but your parents to blame for your lack of resources,” she wrote.


Mr. Moon’s election brought to power the liberal elites, who claimed to be more egalitarian than their conservative opponents.


“Everyone will have equal opportunities,” Mr. Moon promised in his inaugural speech in 2017. “The process will be fair, and the result will be righteous.”


Mr. Cho has been a star of Mr. Moon’s government, and a leading advocate of equal opportunities since his days as a professor. He had more than a million followers on social media accounts. He had been a favorite to succeed Mr. Moon.


Mr. Cho admitted that his word has not matched his deeds, but insists that his family has done nothing unlawful. But students coined a saying for his apparent hypocrisy: choronambul, or “If Cho Kuk does it, it’s called romance. If others do the same, it becomes adultery.”


“We felt the more betrayed because it happened in the liberal government,” said Hwang Seung-hwan, a student at Korea University. “We have thought that if the liberals were incompetent, they were at least less corrupt than the conservatives. They crushed our expectations.”

“因为是发生在自由派政府,就更让我们感到遭受了背叛,”高丽大学学生黄承焕(Hwang Seung-hwan,音)说。“我们曾认为,如果自由派无能的话,至少他们比保守派的腐败程度要低。他们彻底压垮了我们的预期。”



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