In an early scene in "Parasite," a hit South Korean film, a young woman from a poor family forges a university-enrollment certificate for her brother. He is about to apply for a job tutoring a girl from a rich family and hopes that the false credential will improve his chances.
But when he shows up to the interview the girl's mother barely glances at it, telling him she trusts him because he was recommended by her daughter's previous tutor — his only posh friend, who has left to study abroad.
Even more than in most countries, academic credentials are valuable for getting ahead in South Korea. But the scene captures another truth: that if you know the right people, your exam results don't matter as much. The two siblings in "Parasite" milk that insight for all it is worth, before things inevitably unravel.
The film, which won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival this year, also struck a chord with South Koreans: in a country of 52 million, cinemas have sold 10 million tickets for it since it was released in May.
The resonance of a satirical film about inequality is hardly surprising. President Moon Jae-in promised to make South Korea "fairer" when he was elected in 2017, after his predecessor was impeached (and later given a long prison sentence) for using her authority to help a friend's child get ahead, among other abuses. Yet over the past couple of months a nepotism scandal has engulfed Cho Kuk, Moon's new justice minister.
Before Cho was appointed, it emerged that his daughter, now in her late 20s, had received unusual benefits during her studies. Among other things, she allegedly received generous scholarships despite twice failing her exams at medical school, and was listed as the primary author of an academic paper while still in secondary school, even though she had only completed a two-week internship at the lab where the research in question was conducted (which happened to be run by a family friend.)
For weeks, Cho apologized for causing "disappointment" but said he wouldn't resign. But on Monday, he did quit. "I should no longer burden the president and the government with affairs concerning my family," Cho said.
For many South Koreans, the story carried echoes of the scandal that brought down Park Geun-hye, the previous president, whose closest confidante persuaded a university to change its admissions criteria to admit her daughter.
Students, in particular, protested Cho's appointment. "I don't mind the system being competitive, but it's the hypocrisy that's so galling," said Lee Jong-bae, who is campaigning to reform university admissions. "They promised us a fair and equal society and instead we keep having these scandals that show us that privilege is passed on and you can never succeed unless your parents did."
Nearly two-thirds of South Koreans younger than 30 believe that they are unlikely to move up the social ladder. Six years ago, it was less than half.
They have cause to be pessimistic. The social class of children is more closely tied to that of their parents in South Korea than in any other country in the OECD, according to a study published last year. Data from the education ministry show that the percentage of students who receive financial aid at the best universities in Seoul was barely half the national average, suggesting that a large majority of their students are from well-off families.
The problem is not exclusive to South Korea. The recent revelation that some rich families in the U.S. had secured places for their children at prestigious universities through fraud and bribery caused widespread outrage.
But such scandals prompt particular anger in South Korea, said Lee Cheol-sung of Sogang University, because of the country's rigid labor market, which offers few opportunities for those starting out. "It's a systemic problem — there are all these old people with high salaries who are impossible to get rid of, so, to keep paying them, firms avoid hiring young people or only give them irregular contracts," he said.
The official youth unemployment rate reached 10.4% this summer. But that does not include those who have stopped looking for work, and those who undertook further studies to put off looking for a job. If these groups are taken into account, some economists reckon, the true unemployment rate for young people may be as high as 25%.
Moon is trying to level the playing field. His government offers generous subsidies to companies that employ young workers, is encouraging employers to convert part-time contracts into regular jobs and pays a monthly stipend of 500,000 won ($420) to some youngsters from poor backgrounds who are unable to find work. It has banned discriminatory hiring practices, too, such as asking for parents' names and titles on application forms, and tightened rules for lawmakers who want to employ relatives.
The government is also drafting legislation to criminalize the hiring of consultants to buff up university applications, which for many epitomizes the unfair advantages of the rich.