Fall of stem cell scientist underlines South Korea's search
for a hero
Seoul University Panel found that
Hwang Woo Suk faked his results
By Aruna Lee and Peter Schurmann
January 1, 2006
SAN FRANCISCO -- 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
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
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."
Aruna Lee monitors Korean media for New America Media. Peter
Schurmann is majoring in Asian Studies at U.C. Berkeley.