After her fall from grace she was branded a fraud and adulteress and fought a libel case over nude pictures from her prison cell, but at the pinnacle of her career Shin Jeong-ah had seemed to have it all. A tenured professor at the age of 30, the curator of a prestigious museum with friends in some very high places, Shin looked at one time like the poster girl of modern Korea.
Then the scandal erupted: it emerged that Shin had forged her PhD from Yale and owed her chair at Dongguk University and her job as art director of the Gwangju Biennale to her powerful lover, the one-time presidential secretary under the Roh Moo-hyun administration, Byeon Yang-kyoon (62). Shin and Byeon were imprisoned on Oct. 11, 2007.
Two years ago, the Supreme Court upheld charges that Shin had forged her academic degree and embezzled money from the art gallery that employed her. Byeon was released from prison on probation in 2008, and Shin in April 2009 after serving a year-and-a-half in jail.
Now Shin is to reveal all in a book of her own. In interview with the Chosun Ilbo, Shin said she developed a fear of being around other people. When asked whether she had met Byeon since her release, Shin said, "I never met him or even called him on the phone since the scandal. I don't think that's the proper thing to do for people who went through something like this."
When did their relationship become serious? "I don't know. He was much older than me so at first I didn't even imagine we would become lovers," she says. "It didn't start off as a passionate affair. One day, he was just there next to me. It was a doomed relationship from the beginning, and not just because of the 23-year age difference. I never imagined marrying him. But even when I wanted to break off the relationship, it wasn't easy."
She is adamant that the nude photos constituted libel. She says her libel suit against the newspaper that accused her of taking the nude photos and the case is still pending. "That newspaper even accused me of having sex for favors. In the first trial, a court ruled that the newspaper must pay me W150 million (US$1=W1,115) in damages. The court acknowledged the libel charge, but no ruling has been made regarding the authenticity of the photo."
Shin plans to publish a book based on the diaries she wrote since the scandal broke in 2007. "I wanted to ask for the forgiveness of those I wronged, but wanted to tell them the truth first. I want to leave the past four years behind me through the book" It contains her experience in prison and stories about her family and friends. It also touches on her relationship with Byeon and other powerful figures she knew. Asked if she is afraid of being criticized for publishing the book, Shin says, "I'll have to live with that. I don't think readers will believe even half of what I wrote. But I've been portrayed as a liar, and I would be happy if even a handful of people would listen to my side of the story."
Shin says the most painful accusation leveled against her was that she is a con artist who used her sex appeal to gain favors. "That is the most embarrassing thing that has ever happened to me," she says. "That is why I wrote the facts about my relationship with Byeon from the first time we met until we parted."
Shin says it is difficult for a woman to talk about something like that, but she wanted to tell everyone that she did not use sex to gain favors. She also denies being addicted to luxury goods, claiming she prefers "quality products" that she can wear for a long time and it was only accidental that she was seen by the media wearing luxury items.
Her life has changed dramatically. "Perhaps it's because of prison life, but I wake up at 5 a.m. I have breakfast, work out and write or paint," she says. She is still cautious about meeting other people and afraid of going out. "People recognize me wherever I go. Strangers whisper behind my back. I'm afraid of going to public places."
So is she sorry? "When other people were studying hard, I chose the easy way and tried to get my degree by paying someone else to do it. I took the wrong path,” she admits. "There were times when I was afraid of being exposed, but now that everything is out in the open, I feel better."
But her private life was "exaggerated or distorted," she claims. "There was nobody I could talk to, so I would really appreciate it if readers out there would understand me just a bit. I hope that that's not asking too much."