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Koreans Take Stem Cell Scientist's Fall Personally

by Aruna Lee and Peter Schurmann

Hwang became intimately linked to the success of the nation

(PNS) -- Underlying the rise and fall of South Korean stem-cell scientist Hwang Woo Suk is a nation's hunger for a national hero. Korean analysts say the quick idolization and subsequent diminution of Hwang are typical urges in a country eager to tie its national aspirations to the political or scientific successes of its citizens. Media and government, Koreans say, were complicit in this process.

Hwang claimed in a paper published in the journal Science that he had successfully created 11 colonies of human embryonic stem cells. A Seoul National University panel has since found that Hwang faked his results.

An editorial in Korea's Chosun Daily on Dec. 16 noted that while Hwang's stem cell project was initiated by Hwang on his own, it "grew into a state project with government backing and then became the people's project, adding a massive weight of national expectation." Because of this, the editorial says, the ability of the scientific community in Korea to monitor Hwang's research was crippled.

South Korean media initially helped to build up Hwang into a national figure, and later was instrumental in taking him apart. Newspapers in South Korea followed closely Hwang's research, using expressions like "the people's project" to publicize the scientist's successes.

Korea-based online forums criticized conservative papers in South Korea for uncritically supporting the scientist and adding to an already sanctified air around Hwang. Bloggers blasted papers like the Chosun Daily for a perceived nationalist bias. Earlier in the year several editorials in Korean papers examined what Koreans were calling the "Hwang Woo Suk syndrome," the way media elevated Hwang to heroic heights and placed him beyond criticism.

Los Angeles-based Korea Times staff writer Kenneth Kim called the Hwang syndrome "definitely a product of the media. The media instigated people to see Hwang as a national hero."

Others question why government and the media got involved with Hwang in the first place. The Korean government poured over $20 million of taxpayer money into Hwang's research. South Korean president Roh Moo Hyun personally visited Hwang's lab, saying he "had never been so moved since taking office." Other government officials formed support groups for the scientist.

The Korean government hoped that Hwang's success would make South Korea the center of one of science's most promising fields, bringing with it increased foreign investment and international fame. Korean businesses also shared in the hope that Hwang's research would rein in large sums.

UC Berkeley grad student Kang Myung-Koo, 38, who is studying Korean economics, grew up in Seoul. He says the involvement of the state, the public and the media in Hwang's project shows that all social sectors in Korea are "intermingled and entangled, so that each sector does not have strong autonomous operating principles or institutional boundaries."

Ultimately, Kang says, "the logic of patriotism and nationalism appealed to so many Koreans" that Hwang became intimately linked to the success of the nation.

To 26-year-old UC Berkeley student Jung Jae Won, who also grew up in Seoul, Korean society is too easily swayed by media. "We need to take a more critical view of the news before deciding on an issue," Jung says.

South Koreans have seen many public figures who were heralded as heroes later fall from grace. In 1987, President Kim Young Sam was celebrated by the media as the first civilian president after 30 years of military rule. Yet before leaving office he became engulfed in corruption scandals and a devastating financial crisis. Again in 2000, President Kim Dae Jung was hailed for his summit meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, for which he later was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace. Later it emerged that Kim had illegally funneled large sums of money to win the meeting, leading many to claim he had bought his Nobel Prize.

Despite continuing revelations of Hwang's deceptions, many Koreans, both in Korea and abroad, still stand by the scientist.

When allegations about Hwang's faked research first surfaced in media, Koreans rallied in defense of the scientist. Thousands protested against the TV station MBC, and its program, "PD Diary," for discrediting Hwang. Reactions were in fact so swift and strong that MBC later apologized and cancelled "PD Diary," one of the longest running and most successful news programs in South Korea.

Many Koreans at first speculated that scientists outside of Korea were jealous of Hwang's success and sought to disgrace him and his work. Some Koreans are still loath to give up on him.

Yoon Tae Il runs the Web site, "I Love Hwang Woo Suk," which is dedicated to defending the scientist. On his site Yoon describes himself as suffering from an incurable disease. He says that many who come to his site suffer also from incurable diseases and that most still hold out hope that Hwang's research might one day discover a cure. In a recent blog, Yoon vowed to defend Hwang and his research "to the death."

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Albion Monitor December 30, 2005 (

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