Truth vs. nationalism
Hwang Cloning Scandal Invokes Nationalism
Is reaction to Hwang's shame acceptable?
By Adam Dean
The furore surrounding the announcement and resignation last week of Prof. Hwang Woo-Suk of Seoul National University is set to continue as the controversy over authenticity of cloning research work done by the South Korean stem cell expert enters a new dimension. Two core researchers of the cloning pioneer's team return from the United States on Dec. 3, 2005 after meeting another researcher Kim Sun-Jong, whose statement provided a basis for the controversial "PD Notebook" report, an investigative TV program of local network TV MBC in Seoul.However as the ethical debate about stem cell surgery and Hwang's actions rumbles on, it throws into light other questions about Korean nationalism and Korea's relationship with the media, both national and global.Since Hwang's televised fall from grace last week Korean's have rallied around him in an overwhelming display of Nationalism. The revelations are undoubtedly a blow to South Korea who use Hwang as the hi-tech face of this modern thriving country. He was recently announced "a national treasure" by the Korean national carrier, Korea Air, and he and his wife were given free first class tickets for a decade.Perhaps this goes some way to explain the extraordinary reaction of the Korean people to this news. Since the infamous press conference, there have been on and offline demonstrations, candle-lit vigils, boycotting of the media outlet involved in reporting Hwang's lies to the world and even comment on the reaction from the President.What appears to be most alarming to outsiders, and some more liberal Korean's, is the blind nationalism at the expense of a free press. Rather than lauding the MBC program for it's investigative piece that resulted in the revelations and prevention of inevitable greater embarrasement further down the line, they have been pilloried by the mainstream press and public.In mid-November, the broadcaster MBC sparked an outcry from Hwang's supporters by airing the one-hour documentary program that raised concerns that Hwang's team might have acquired the ova for their research by paying compensation to donors.Two days later, Hwang held a press conference where he confirmed the allegations and admitted that he had compensated the donors, which breaks global ethical guidelines.He apologized to the public and said he would resign from all official posts to take moral responsibility for his behavior.Despite the controversy, South Koreans seem to remain firmly supportive of Hwang and his research, arguing that such "groundless" attacks will not serve the interests of the nation and hamper the process of scientific development.MBC's documentary program, which aired the in-depth investigative report, has been bearing the brunt of public criticism. Only days after the broadcast, 11 of the program's 12 sponsors pulled their advertising due to a campaign by Hwang's numerous supporters.Emotions are undoubtedly running high on this subject and earlier this week two Seoul newspapers reported that angry viewers had posted photos of family members of the show's producers on the Internet, threatening to kill them.To demonstrate the level to which this story has captured the hearts and minds of many Korean's, President Roh Moo-Hyun felt he had enter the debate and made a statement on his website saying that "the public's response went too far."However, Roh's statement appears to have fallen on death ears as demonstrations, boycotts and protests continue. Some commentators have gone further in pointing out that the controversy and public reaction has highlighted a conflict between liberal and conservative forces in and outside the media establishment.
|Prof. Hwang Woo-Suk (center) poses with his then fellow researcher Prof. Gerald Schatten of the University of Pittsburgh, and with another researcher after they announces the first cloned dog SNUPY in the world in August 2004.|
"The netizens' ruthless lynch on MBC's "PD Notebook" program is the result created by ignorance and blind nationalism," said Hong Se-Hwa, a columnist of Hangyerey Newspaper.He said that the big three conservative newspapers are responsible for massive attacks by netizens on MBC's efforts to reveal the truth is ascribable."Advertisement boycotts on the "PD Notebook" and netizens threatening of its journalists reached a dangerous point," Hong said. "It (demonstrates) that South Korean society is still immature.""Attacking ruthlessly and massively one media entity when it raises questions about ethical issues and tries to reveal truth is like a witch hunt," said Hong.Criticism of South Korea's reaction has not only come from media within the country, but also global media organizations outside the country too. South Korea is very conscious of the image it projects to the world as it tries to present itself as a high-tech, modern democracy and economy, ironically up until now using Hwang as the front man, so it will hurt for them to read articles such as the one published in New York Times this week commenting that, "To many, the backlash reflects a growing tendency in the country to invoke nationalistic sentiments to resist outside scrutiny."Perhaps the most sensible words on this whole debacle were said by Sun Joun-Yung, former South Korean ambassador to the United Nations, "It should be recognized that MBC has contributed to preventing the controversy from evolving into a more serious and damaging scandal, if left unreported. Credit should be given to MBC for boldly representing the right of the people to know such an important international issue, rather than allowing it victimized by popular emotionalism."He went on to say that, "The Hwang controversy could be used by the Korean people as an opportunity to learn to be more receptive to foreign voices including mass media reports, even if they are bitter and unpleasant."
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Mr. Adam Dean serves as staff writer and photo journalist for The Seoul Times. He majored in fine arts valuation at Southampton Institute, UK, and worked as a communications and marketing specialist for a leading consultancy in London before he arrived in Seoul in July 2005. He has also traveled independently overland through Asia and the Middle East.