December 23, 2005

Stem cell scandal raises questions about South Korea’s ‘hurry-hurry’ culture

By BURT HERMAN, Associated Press Writer

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) _ Six-day morning-to-night work weeks. Companies trumpeting ever-bigger flat-screen TVs. A government that wants to make its country a “hub” for everything from finance to robots. South Korea is fiercely committed to being No. 1 _ and doing it yesterday.

As South Korean scientist Hwang Woo-suk resigned his job as professor Friday after Seoul National University found he faked research results, some observers partly blamed the country’s always-hurrying culture, accompanied by its deep national pride and craving for international recognition.

“The Hwang Woo-suk case is a good example that in Korean society there still exists remnants of the past experience of fast growth,” said Park Gil-sung, a Korea University sociology professor. “It’s a problem of our social system that desires fast results.”

Hwang emerged from relative obscurity to announce the world’s first cloned human embryo in 2004. This year he claimed to have cloned stem cells tailor-made for individual patients with unprecedented efficiency, after producing the world’s first cloned dog.

Stem cells _ master cells that can grow other bodily tissues _ are seen as a hope for possible treatments for daunting medical problems like Alzheimer’s disease and paralysis.

As Hwang announced one stride after another, his country cheered him on and dubbed him the “pride of Korea.”

In June, the government designated the veterinarian South Korea’s first-ever “top scientist,” granting him funding and assigning him a diplomat to help with international contacts. National flag-carrier Korean Air gave him and his wife free first-class flights for a decade.

The Ministry of Science and Technology pledged this year to make South Korea a world scientific power and to “provide a liberal and stable research environment to brilliant researchers and generate the second, the third Hwang Woo-suk.”

Hwang’s work “grew into a state project with government backing and then became the people’s project, adding a massive weight of national expectation,” the Chosun Ilbo newspaper wrote in a recent editorial.

“That very fact simply short-circuited any stringent verification procedures by scientists and the government,” it said. “Scientists kept mum because they saw hope in one of their own becoming a national hero, and the government was happy to bask in reflected glory without asking too many questions.”

After Hwang last month admitted ethics lapses _ accepting eggs from female workers at his lab _ supporters still stood by him. Hundreds of women have offered their eggs.

But Hwang last week acknowledged “fatal errors” in his work, and on Friday he resigned after his university said he had been involved in a deliberate deception to fake DNA test results.

“I suspect it’s a question of whether nationalism and the public spotlight kind of swept them along a little bit,” said Michael Breen, author of the book “The Koreans: Who They Are, What They Want, Where Their Future Lies.”

“In that kind of rush to be first, they kind of cut corners,” he said.

Speed is such a part of South Korean culture that its people often use the catch phrase “ppalli ppalli” _ “hurry hurry.”

It’s tangible in Seoul’s hellish traffic, daredevil bus drivers and people’s love of downing shots of alcohol in one gulp to get drunk fast.

The dynamic culture has its upside, having helped rebuild the country from the ruins of the 1950-53 Korean War into the world’s 11th-largest economy.

Samsung Electronics and other South Korean companies lead the world in making memory chips, flat-screen displays and mobile phones. Media herald their progress as a source of national pride.

South Korea “doesn’t get to where (it is) today without hustling,” said Korea Times columnist Mike Weisbart. “There’s still way more dynamism going on here, and much more lethargy in the West.”

But there have been downsides _ some deadly.

A Seoul department store collapsed in 1995, killing 501 people, in an accident blamed on faulty construction due to illegal design changes made after paying officials bribes _ called “hurry-up” money.

A bridge collapsed in the city in 1994 for similar reasons, killing 32.

“Sometimes the ends justify the means and things that get in the way, like sticking to the rules, are annoying and seen as secondary,” Breen said.

In central Seoul, bank employee Ahn Sang-bok, 38, was running across a bridge to get back to the office.

“I’m always in a rush. Time is considered most important in our society, and being No. 1 is definitely considered good by others,” he said. “I think Hwang had this kind of pressure, and that’s why he rushed his research.”

The success race starts early.

Jo Moon-joo, a 15-year-old walking through downtown Seoul in her school uniform of checkered skirt and navy blue sweater, said teachers seat children in class according to test results.

“If you get the highest mark, you sit at the very front, and so on,” she said. “Teachers and mothers force us to become the first in everything.”

Oct. 10, 2006

Inside Kim’s head: North Korean leader’s actions reflect his sole goal of staying in power

By BURT HERMAN, Associated Press Writer

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) _ Kim Jong Il is one of the world’s most mysterious public figures, a pudgy recluse with bouffant hair and trademark sunglasses whose image projects for many a B-movie archetype of the crazed mastermind bent on fomenting global chaos.

But the North Korean is considered a shrewd, if quirky leader, and his actions fit within a well-established pattern focused on a single goal: staying in power in a grimly poor nation where he and those who guard him live a life of luxury unimaginable for most of his people.

North Korea’s announcement that it conducted a nuclear test explosion Monday was the latest move in the 64-year-old Kim’s strategy of keeping foes at bay by raising tensions and stoking fears about the possibility of conflict in Asia.

The step showed that Kim has given up for the moment on seeking compromise with the Bush administration, which he feels is bent on toppling his regime despite its denials. In Kim’s mind, a nuclear bomb is just a way to insure there are no Saddam-statue moments in Pyongyang.

He also wants North Korea viewed as a legitimate member of the international community and to win aid and trade deals that will help alleviate his people’s economic travails and prop up his regime’s popularity.

“They want to get accepted,” said Michael Breen, author of a biography on Kim and a longtime Korea-watcher. “They honestly think in their own way that if they didn’t act tough, they wouldn’t just not get attention, but get invaded eventually.”

Since rising to power in 1994 after the death of his father, Kim Il Sung, the founder of communist North Korea, Kim has often been ridiculed elsewhere for the khaki jumpsuits, platform shoes and puffy hair he wears to make his rotund, 5-foot-3 frame appear taller.

Despite his flamboyant style, he is reclusive. He rarely leaves his homeland and spurns plane travel in favor of a special luxury train outfitted with satellite Internet access.

But Kim maintains a firm grip, using the regime’s power to crush dissent. Thousands of political prisoners are believed held in harsh camps. Entire families, even children, are jailed for the alleged crimes of a relative.

The regime also relentlessly feeds Kim’s cult of personality. His pictures hang on buildings and in homes across a country that is mostly cut off from the outside world, and state-run media report daily on his writings.

He has always dealt with other countries by seeking to raise the stakes and getting the other side to back down. Kim, who has been said to have a penchant for “Rambo,” James Bond films and other Hollywood action movies, has few ways to get attention besides taking stands that lean toward the provocative.

In 1994, during the Clinton administration, the North agreed after direct talks with the U.S. to halt nuclear development in exchange for promises of energy aid and diplomatic recognition. That came after some harrowing moments in which Pyongyang threatened to turn South Korea’s capital, Seoul, into a “sea of fire.”

The North shut down its nuclear reactor and let in international inspectors. The U.S. and other countries were supposed to build the North a nuclear reactor for generating electricity by 2003 and also deliver oil, and Washington and Pyongyang were to eventually establish diplomatic relations.

But just after the agreement, control of Congress shifted to the Republicans, many of whom felt the Clinton administration agreement was appeasing a dictator who could not be trusted.

Construction of the reactor went slowly and reconciliation was halting, and from Kim’s point of view, the U.S. failed to live up to its word.

There was trouble at home, too. Natural disasters and the absence of aid once provided by the Soviet Union led to famine that some experts believe killed as many as 2 million people. None of that hardship was felt by Kim, who has foreign chefs to prepare Italian and Japanese delicacies and imports gourmet food and drink.

Kim sent a missile flying over Japan in 1998. That led to condemnation, but also eventually to talks at which the U.S. agreed to ease economic sanctions in exchange for the North declaring a moratorium on long-range missile launches.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright traveled to Pyongyang in October 2000, and President Clinton was even thinking of a visit.

But Kim also is believed to have started a secret uranium enrichment program in the late 1990s, seeking yet another bargaining chip. Technically, that didn’t violate the 1994 deal _ which only specifically mentioned plutonium programs _ but it did go against the spirit of the agreement.

Then came the new Bush administration. Kim was cautious. His regime sent condolences over the Sept. 11 terror attacks on the United States.

But in his 2002 State of the Union address, President Bush tarred North Korea as a member of an “axis of evil” along with Iran and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Bush had said privately he loathed Kim for starving his people.

Labeling North Korea in such a way was like “trying to talk to a woman after calling her a prostitute,” said Paik Hak-soon, a North Korea analyst at the Sejong Institute outside Seoul.

Despite Bush’s stinging words, and possibly fearful after seeing the successful U.S.-led war to topple Afghanistan’s Taliban regime, Kim tried to right some wrongs.

In September 2002, North Korea admitted it had abducted Japanese citizens to help teach its spies _ although Pyongyang’s claims of how some of the victims died were considered highly suspect.

Then, with the invasion of Iraq looming, North Korea told U.S. officials in October 2002 that it had been developing a secret uranium program in violation of the earlier deal. That backfired, with the U.S. and its allies halting promised oil deliveries.

Kim became increasingly convinced Bush wanted to overthrow him.

The North restarted its nuclear reactor and kicked out international inspectors.

It eventually agreed at international talks in September 2005 to abandon its nuclear program in exchange for aid and security guarantees, although those negotiations have since stalled.

That agreement came just after Washington launched a campaign to sever the North’s connections to the international financial system, accusing Pyongyang of complicity in counterfeiting and money laundering.

The U.S. has refused to remove the restrictions, which make it very difficult for Kim to coddle his elites with gifts from abroad _ meaning he faces a potential threat to his rule from those closest to him.

Kim escalated again. He launched missiles in July that harmlessly dropped into waters off its east coast, drawing more international condemnation. Then came this week’s announcement of the nuclear test explosion.

For Kim’s critics, there is nothing in his ruthless rule, and even before, that shows he can be trusted. Before rising to power, Kim is believed to have masterminded the 1987 bombing of a South Korean airliner and a 1983 terror bombing in Myanmar that killed 17 South Korean officials.

Bush so far refuses to back down. But unlike Bush, whose term expires early in 2009, Kim has time on his side, and analysts say he has the abilities to stay in power despite his wacky image.

“He’s probably going to be in power longer than Bush is,” said Peter Beck, head of the Seoul office of the International Crisis Group think tank. “It’s hard to imagine how a crazy person could be in power for more than 12 years.”


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