korea project

What our society needs

January 2006


Following the broadcast of the South Korean television show “PD Notebook” on November 22, 2005 that first revealed the deceptions of Dr. Hwang Woo-suk's experiments, the whole nation seems to be recovering from the shock. We will not know the consequences until the Seoul National University's investigation on the matter is completed. But it will do us good to take a deep breath and reflect on what has happened thus far.

I would like to review the whole process from a woman's perspective. Verifying the legitimacy of Hwang's papers is up to the scientists; I want to draw attention to the ethical issues involved in Hwang's research and the problematic attitudes of the media and public.

The TV program showed us that there was a breach of international bioethical standards in Hwang's experiments, but that fact was overshadowed by subsequent revelations of foul play on the part of the reporters themselves. The ethical issues involved in Hwang's experiments are serious ones that should not be ignored, although a violation of journalistic ethics is just as serious. We understand that stem cell technology could save millions of patients now suffering from incurable diseases. Yet the same technology, if lacking proper ethics to guide it, could turn into a bomb to destroy the human race. None of us can guarantee that things that happen in science fiction will never happen in reality.

Disregard for ethical issues has a lot to do with a quintessential Korean culture that values growth, speed and results, formed under a series of oppressive governments intent on pursuing rapid development at all costs. The idea that we should put ethical issues aside for the greater cause of achieving an unprecedented cloning technology, and through this increasing the nation's competitive power, resembles the notion that we should sacrifice democracy for the country’s economic growth and development.

Why does the public feel the need to expedite Hwang's research without spending any more time discussing the matter? This mentality becomes even more catastrophic when combined with a fierce nationalism. We saw the classic example of this when those who questioned Hwang's research were bashed as traitors to the country. History tells us what happens to a society that doesn't allow constructive criticism. Stem cell research in Korea is a threat to humankind if questioning its ethical problems isn’t accepted as healthy discussion.

In addition, it worries us to see Korean perceptions of a woman's body. During the Hwang scandal a woman's ova and her body in general were treated mainly as a stem cell provider and means to achieve national development. Information on how the operation to remove ova affects women's health was not fully revealed. This is a sign of the media’s patriarchal attitude -- that women's bodies can be used for national goals. Even if embryonic stem cells could help cure hopeless diseases, we should reconsider the validity of experiments in this field as they are done now if women's health is at stake.

Finally we should rethink the media’s role. It was the media that drew attention to the ethical issues involved in stem cell research, but it was also the media that held off further discussion, while manipulating patriotism. It was a big disappointment to see some members of the media being reduced to backup forces for Hwang's research team, covering the incident as if questioning his experiments was going against the country. Media coverage without the ability to examine critically can only prove harmful right now, at a time when our country is trying to achieve real development on the basis of democracy and diversity.

Any experience you go through makes you stronger if you survive it. If we can properly deal with/address the problems that have surfaced through this situation, we will see a better Korea. And how we resolve them will reflect on our level of democracy, to ourselves and to the international community.