Wednesday, January 18, 2006

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.

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.
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.

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 condition
Now, 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:

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.

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.

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?


At 12:20 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Light a candle and plant a tree if you know what I mean Piglet.....

(AA Milne was born this day in 1882)

At 12:24 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

If only Hwang were allowed to continue his great and wonderful work, we could have many more such fine pigs as Piglet.

Aseptic ones.

Also, more than just one Milne!

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Squeal: I'm vegan!

Furthermore I prefer organic.........keep NZ GE free!!!

Poor Piglet!! and piglets......


At 2:40 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Objective Test.

Try not to get emotional when you are doing this, as it may cause your rational powers to decline severely.

1. In the following sets of logical pairs, which is the one that does not belong?

a. rational emotional
b. objective tribalistic
c. globalizing nationalistic

After this, briefly explain why the one you selected does not belong.

At 4:13 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Anonymous, I passed your test on to Jon Huer to see if he's interested. I don't know whether or not he'll respond. Good luck.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:37 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Oglivie, what sort of "unfortunate results" were produced?

I know little about this field but have read that one danger is that the stem cells differentiate into various types of cells even when placed within a specific sort of tissue that ought to direct the stem cells to develop into specifically that sort of tissue.

So, one finds teeth developing in a muscle, for example.

Is that the sort of problem that you mean?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:31 PM, Blogger Jessica said...

This relates to your 42nd post--I just couldn't bring myself to turn 7 comments into 8. You gave away at least one author you love. If not among the top 7, I have a hunch Douglas Adams ranks in your top 42.

At 4:11 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Jessica, Adams might be among the top 42. I don't seem to be able to rank things very easily, which is perhaps one motivation for responding with misdirecting humor to Dymphna's request.

I guess that if somebody held a gun to my head and demanded a list, I'd come up with one that has Milton, Thoreau, Melville, and Pynchon near the top. I tend to like texts that are not just well-written but are also difficult and require multiple re-readings.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:42 AM, Blogger Jessica said...

Then I'd hope that Faulkner and Joyce have a warm place in your heart as well. They do in mine.

At 8:11 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sperwer wrote:

"My experience has been if you rub nearly any seemingly cosmpolitan Korean even a little roughly you'll find a Korean Snopes every time."

That would depend on WHERE you rub them and HOW ROUGHLY, I suspect. And is that all you've found, in your experience when you did this?

At 8:57 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Huer is correct that nationalism lies behind much of the Hwang debacle and the Korean reactions to it.

One of the initial things that I noticed when I came to Korea for the first time, in 1995, was how passionately nationalistic Koreans are.

My wife and I visited a sociologist at one of the universities in Daegu at that time, and he asked for my impression of Korea. I mentioned the nationalism, stating that this was the first country that I had lived in where both right and left were strongly nationlistic.

The man visibly bristled at my observation, then made a somewhat heated remark about foreign domination of Korea in the 20th century.

His defensive reaction surprised me because I was simply making an observation, nor judging the fact.

My friend Yoon Pyung-Joong (윤평중), who teaches political philosophy at my previous university, Hanshin, once told me that he thinks that all of politics in South Korea is distorted by Korea's intense nationalism and that he had often criticized this aspect of Korea.

I suggested that there could be a good and a bad nationalism and that since ridding a nation of nationalism is Sisyphean task, then it would perhaps be more effective to attempt to nudge Korean nationalism toward more positive expressions.

Yoon agreed but seemed skeptical that this would work ... and I suppose that I'm skeptical, too.

Yoon, by the way, had these words to say about the Hwang affair before Hwang's complete fall:

Criticism of Hwang, who rose from a humble background to become a celebrated scientist, is seen by some South Koreans as an attack on national dignity, according to Yoon Pyung-joong, a social philosophy professor at South Korea's Hanshin University.

"The mass society of Korea produced and manipulated Dr. Hwang as a scientific hero based on its patriotism and humanitarianism," Yoon wrote in a weekend opinion piece for the South Korean daily JoongAng Ilbo.

Korea endured so much misery in the past century under Japanese colonial rule and destruction from the Korean War that South Korean pride quickly swells for someone such as Hwang who could elevate the country's global status, Yoon wrote.

I'd be interested in Yoon's current analysis of the Hwang debacle -- and could probably find it if I Googled, but I'd rather speak to him personally.

I think that he must be finding this affair both fascinating and troubling...

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:02 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...


One of my statements should read:

"His defensive reaction surprised me because I was simply making an observation, NOT judging the fact."

Jeffery Hodges

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At 4:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I doubt very much that Jon will respond. The test is bound to make him very, very, very upset. I am simply making an observation.

At 4:49 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Anonymous, Jon is Korean, but he's not at all nationalistic, so I doubt that he'd get upset at all.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:03 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


You think only people who are nationalistic get upset when faced with logical tests?

I stand by my observation: he will get very, very, very, very, very upset. And if he doesn't, it's a fact that YOU will.

At 9:34 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Anonymous, I guess that this is another thing on which we'll have to agree to disagree.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 4:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jeffery wrote:

"One of my statements should read:

'His defensive reaction surprised me because I was simply making an observation, NOT judging the fact.'"

Which one of your statements, Jeffery? You don't say! Do we really have to guess?

I mean I know you tend to like texts that are not just well-written but are also difficult and require multiple re-readings, but this is ridiculous!

At 5:08 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Anonymous, I was correcting a typo in which I wrote:

"His defensive reaction surprised me because I was simply making an observation, nor judging the fact."

I probably should have gone ahead and corrected it, but I was too pressed for time that day.

Or maybe too lazy.

Jeffery Hodges

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