Sunday, November 27, 2005

Update: The Marmot has more information about the protests against MBC over the whole incident and gives more information about developments on that front.

Hwang Woo Suk

From the beginning things have not gone well for Professor Hwang Woo Suk. The first bad omen, in my opinion, was calling a dog "Snuppy". As if that wasn't bad enough, it turned out to be only a minor mistake compared to what was to come. Shortly after cloning the world's first human embryos Prof Hwang found himself in all sorts of ethical trouble. Acquisition of the eggs used for the research was found to be in breach of ethical standards - an event which has led to worldwide bad press for him and his research team. To give him a break, it seems that Prof Hwang was not aware of how the eggs were acquired at the time. It is also true that the means of acquirement was made illegal after it was done. His decision to not use them then, if he had known, would've relied on his own ethical conscious.

The ethical breach in question is an important one. Gaining eggs from employees who may be coerced or coaxed against their will to do so is a valid concern. In a country like Korea where subordination and obedience to hierarchy is the norm the threat of such occurences is heightened. Even with legal backing such research should have to undergo sufficient auditing to ensure honesty is maintained by any country. The Korean's running to donate eggs (like they did gold in the economic crisis) completely misinterprets the matter. It is not about countries racing to be the first and best in research but about creating the right framework and standards to allow research to be conducted in an ethical manner no matter which country is doing the research.

However in the wake of the revelations, things, as so often happens in Korea, have gone awry. It might be expected that Prof Hwang would apologise and resign as he did (and possibly continue research still but less high profile which I believe he has indicated he will do). Next, you would expect official investigations to clear up the matter and recommend ways to prevent a repeat of events and this too seems to happening. You may even expect that a local tv station may run a story on it. So far, so normal.

What you may not expect to find is a bunch of Koreans holding a memorial service. Afterall, nobody has died. Why you would hold a candle vigil when nobody's dead is, for all wants and purposes, absurd. Now, some may say that certain Koreans are not fully familiar with the purpose of a candle vigil and that to them a protest = molotov cocktail or candle depending on level of anger. By this account, the candle vigil is supposed to be a protest. The memorial service is against MBC and alleged bias. I have not watched it but am told that the show, while not possibly bearing much good news, was in essence truthful. Two things: if you have a pre-set opinion it is easy for something stated against your opinion to appear as bias. Second, I sincerely doubt that the concern of the protestors is "concern of accuracy in news reporting" so much as "making Hwang look bad when he is the hero". If I am mistaken and it is the former, I expect to see a great many more vigils against all Korean tv stations and applaude their demonstrable concern for information accuracy in the media.

The protests and public attention which makes the case so odd seems to emanate from the Korean's strong desire, at a personal level, to be so well respected and recognised on the world's stage. The difference is one of seeing him as an scientist who happens to be Korean and whose achievements and errors alike are his own, as opposed to seeing him as a Korean who happens to be a scientist and whose failings also show poorly on Korean people. It is a little sad because, yet again, the Korean's end up making themselves look worse on the international stage thanks to their behaviour which foreigners usually view with confusion and sometimes derision.

Currently reading:

"Hell" by Yasutaka Tsutsui