[VIEWPOINT]A blessing in disguise

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[VIEWPOINT]A blessing in disguise

The incident surrounding Dr. Hwang Woo-suk is a mirror of Korean society. It shows clearly where we are right now and where we should be going.
The controversial points, including whether Dr. Hwang’s team violated the ethical code or not, will be taken care of shortly as a bioethics review committee under the president has officially launched an investigation into the points in dispute of the matter.
What is interesting is that a problem that started as a small controversy related to the research ethics of Dr. Hwang’s team, has, in the blink of an eye, expanded to a bigger problem of national interest, nationalism and even freedom of the press.
“Public rage” against a television program, “PD Notebook” on MBC, which dealt a severe blow to Dr. Hwang, who had become a “national hero” by rising to stardom in the field of bioscience in just a few years, is what lies at the core of the huge explosion caused by the incident.
The achievements of Dr. Hwang’s research, which attracted the full attention of the bioscience world, lifted our people’s pride. Also, the appraisal that the prominence and leading role he displayed in stem cell research virtually “reserved” him a strong candidacy for a Nobel prize excited the Korean people. Hopes that an age of curing incurable diseases was dawning and that astronomical amounts of added value were expected quickly expanded among people and they were echoed by the media and the government.
However, we must look into the situation where the specialist research of Dr. Hwang’s team crosseed the bounds of science, leaped into politics and then became a cultural symbol.
The “Hwang Woo-suk syndrome” is not only driven by the objective research results of his team, but is also the result of a collaboration of politics and the media that provoked the emotion of the public. In other words, the mass society of Korea produced and manipulated Dr. Hwang as a scientific hero based on its patriotism and humanitarianism. The positive sides of this syndrome cannot be denied, but it also proves that the sexual arousal zone of the Korean people focuses on being the first and the best.
We shout cheers of joy over symbols like “the world’s first” or “Asia’s biggest.” It is another example of this characteristic that the national expectation to see a Korean scientist become a Nobel laureate has turned into a collective yearning for a Nobel prize. If this year’s Nobel prize for literature had been given to a Korean writer, that writer would have instantly escalated into a national hero in art. Why are we so fired up with the desire to be recognized and aspire to be the first and the best?
The answer is in Korea’s modern history, which is so full of misery. We have risen from national ruin, territorial division and the devastation of war to achieve industrialization and democratization in half a century, but we are still not free from the “small country” complex. Although the obsessions to be big and strong and to be the first and the best can seem to be part of a superiority complex at first glance, they are actually a manifestation of an inferiority complex.
Who could negate and criticize the earnest hopes of sufferers of incurable diseases, the international accomplishments of Korean scientists or the enormous economic effects that are described as being impending? Dr. Hwang’s work appeals to patriotism, secures economic growth and even has a factor of general love for mankind, so it couldn’t be any better. That is why people were so fiercely infuriated by the report on MBC television.
However, if we see this from the reverse, there is a painful truth of our society that is hidden behind the Hwang Woo-suk syndrome. A truth that has already been revealed cannot be covered up by blind nationalism, and the possibility of providing humanitarian cures for incurable diseases, which comes with huge economic effects, is unclear at this stage.
As is shown by this huge controversy, it is unclear as yet whether the research of Dr. Hwang’s team will be a blessing or a disaster. This is a fact that cannot be denied. However, it is also true that these great pioneering scientists have contributed greatly to mankind by opening up an area totally unexplored by man ever before.
We are part of the mass and at the same time we are the public. Even the mass that is sensitive and follows trends can rise up to become a public with a sense of balance and self-reflecting identity. The gradual awareness of the complexity of the incident sparked by Dr. Hwang and the process of public debate over it proves this. Tension between the mass and the public is a sign of our society’s dynamism and health. It is this healthy and tense relationship between mass and public that the Hwang Woo-suk syndrome has revived as a blessing to us.

* The writer is a professor of social philosophy at Hanshin University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Yoon Pyung-joong
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