Huer on Hwang
The Korea Herald has a column titled "A Reader's View" on its Opinion page. There, a reader can choose some topical issue, write up an opinion, and offer it for publication.
Yesterday, my friend Jon Huer published his opinion on the Hwang Woo Suk affair: "Hwang and the two Koreas at war" (Korea Herald, January 17, 2006, page 19).
By "the two Koreas," Huer doesn't mean the North and the South. He also doesn't mean 'East' and 'West,' so one shouldn't fall for that tempting binary opposition. Rather, he means: "The nationalistic-emotional-tribalistic Korea and the rational-objective-globalizing Korea."
Huer acknowledges that the Hwang case has not been a simple one to follow because it "involves a cutting-edge scientific development where evidence is not prone to be clear cut" and thus "has its scientific-technical difficulty," which might help account for the degree of support that Hwang still finds among too many Koreans. However, argues Huer, the Hwang affair's "'scientific' aspects are only a small part of the whole picture," and focusing on the science alone would only obscure the battle going on:
What it hides is the monumentally deep nationalistic sentiment that has occupied the largest part of the Hwang saga. In other words, it is not about science, or even Hwang himself, or even the medical benefits it is touted to bring to sufferers. It is about Korea -- the nationalistic-emotional-tribalistic Korea against the rational-objective-globalizing Korea. Not surprisingly, Buddhists, one of the oldest groups, are the staunchest supporters of Hwang (a leading Buddhist expressed his support of Hwang by saying, "As Koreans, we should applaud any endeavor that puts Koreans ahead of others.") while the most forward-looking group, young scientists at Seoul National University, has been at the core of Hwang's exposure. The proof of this conflict between the two Koreas -- old and new -- is easy to observe: The majority of Koreans are still in support of Hwang in spite of the verdict rendered by a neutral investigative committee. Scientists and journalists, those that are at the forefront of rational-objective-globalizing Korea, on the other hand, are quick to accept the conclusions that in the main Hwang's claims were bogus.I'm not sure that the majority of Koreans support Hwang because I haven't seen any statistics on this, but my wife worries that too many Koreans are still fooled by Hwang because of his appeals to Korean nationalism.
From the old Korean perspective, Hwang's accomplishment represents Korea itself, its stature, its prestige, its power. In this perspective, the Korean nation is more supreme than scientific rationality, more believable than any objective evidence, and is larger than the global community itself. To this perspective, it means very little whether Hwang turns out to be a charlatan, whether there is no real stem cell grown, or whether the touted benefits are fraught with moral difficulties. All that matters is that Hwang is a Korean scientist and the stem-cell success demonstrates Korean national prowess. Such sentiments run deep in the Korean blood and occupy the very depth of the Korean soul. They are mostly subconscious and defy self-analysis.
Setting the question of statistics aside for the moment, if Huer is correct in seeing the Hwang affair as a battle in the war between the old nationalistic-emotional-tribalistic Korea and the new rational-objective-globalizing Korea, then I see a rich irony in the Old Korea's nationalist quest after status in this case, for the status sought would depend upon the New Korea's rational achievements.
Pointing to this irony won't sway passionate nationalists, but the headline and the before-and-after photos in the January 17, 2006 issue of the JoongAng Daily might:
"Hwang myth" spurs dubious stem cell tests: Rush to develop therapies leaves 12 dead, 80% in worse conditionNow, this is the English edition, but I hope that the Korean original hits with the same devastating effect: 12 dead, 80% worse.
Among other things, this article tells of the paraplegic Hwang Mi-sun (no relation to disgraced scientist Hwang Woo Suk, I assume), who underwent treatment with stem cells in 2004:
Scandals like this one might sway even the most passionate supporters of Hwang Woo Suk, for his hyperbolic mendacity in claiming that his scientific 'breakthrough' would lead to cures for previously untreatable diseases has led to relaxed procedures for risky stem-cell treatments that not only failed to help but that actually harmed other Koreans.
Hwang Mi-sun, 39, was once hailed as proof that miracle cures can happen. Paralyzed from the waist down and confined to a wheelchair because of a spinal cord injury she suffered when she was 19, she met the press on Nov. 25, 2004, and took a few steps with the aid of a walker.
The press conference was called by a team of researchers at Chosun University's medical school, Seoul National University's veterinary college and Seoul Cord Bank, a biotechnology company, who had treated Ms. Hwang with injections of adult stem cells.
Just over a year later, Ms. Hwang says her miracle has turned into a nightmare. She can no longer even sit in a wheelchair and now spends most of her time in bed and says she is in constant pain.
Look at these numbers:
The JoongAng Ilbo surveyed the aftermath of 73 experimental treatments conducted under those relaxed procedures and involving adult stem cell therapy. More than 80 percent of the patients developed serious side effects, and 12 people died.If this is correct and means what it seems to say, then 12 out of 73 people treated died! That would be about 16.5 percent, a shockingly high mortality rate for experimental tests.
How will these stories affect the passionate nationalists? I'd be curious to hear Huer's opinion. In his article, he ends in ruminations on the Korean culture war's eventual winner:
For a detached observer, the conclusion shouldn't be too difficulty to draw: Obviously, the future belongs to the rational, objective and global, and the new Korea will win out eventually, if not at this crucial crossroads. But to those who know Korea, those who understand the deepest recesses of Korean nationalism and tribalism, such conclusions might seem too optimistic.Perhaps. But the Korean suffering engendered by Hwang Woo Suk's deceptions might turn Koreans away from the old Korea and toward the new.
What do you think, Jon?