[Viewpoint] Encourage a culture of philanthropy

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[Viewpoint] Encourage a culture of philanthropy

I recently read an article in a newspaper that shed light on the present gloomy economic situation. Kim Byeong-ho, who runs a farm called Seojeon Garden, and his wife Kim Sam-yeol donated 30 billion won ($24 million) to Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology and asked the institute to raise the standards of Korea’s scientific technology to an international level.

It is said that the couple had decided a long time ago not to leave their fortune to their children, but to invest in scientific technology for the future of the country. The money they donated is the result of the hard work and sweat of Kim Byeong-ho since he left his hometown Buan, North Jeolla, with 76 won in hand at age 17.

How can words express what it feels like to give up a fortune that was saved over a lifetime? Kim said, “I am grateful that I am allowed to do, with peace of mind, what I wanted to do for a long time.”

His only son, Kim Se-yoon, brought tears to the eyes of many people when he said, “I feel even happier than before, since I have inherited the great mind of my father.” Like father, like son.

Kaist says it plans to build the Kim Byeong-ho-Kim Sam-yeol Combined IT Research Center with that money. In this building scientists will develop new technologies that will raise the level of Korea’s IT. When professors or students get stuck while doing research, they will turn to the statues of Kim Byeong-ho and Kim Sam-yeol and ask, “Is there a new way to solve this problem?”

The first big donor to the university was the former president of Mirae Corporation, Chung Moon-soul, who donated 30 billion won in 2001. Kaist built the Chung Moon-soul Building with the money and created the department of bio and brain engineering for combined research in the two fields.

In 2002, Hwang Pil-sang, president of Suwon Intersection, donated 21.5 billion won to Ajou University. The first doctor of Oriental medicine in Korea, Ryu Geun-chul, donated 57.8 billion won to Kaist in 2008. With the donation, Kaist is going to create the Ryu Geun-chul Campus in the newly developed Sejong City. Meanwhile, Park Byung-joon, a Korean-American businessman, and his wife, Hong Jung-hee, donated 13 billion won to Kaist. The money will be used for the creation of another combined research center.

A prominent case of someone returning personal assets to society through the establishment of a scholarship foundation was that of Lee Chong-hwan, president of Samyoung Chemical, in 2000. He donated 240 billion won out of his fortune to establish the Gwanjung Lee Chong-hwan Scholarship Foundation, which has given students 15 billion won in financial aid so far. In 2003, Song Geum-jo, president of Taeyang, established the
Gyeongam Education and Culture Foundation by donating 100 billion won. He has also donated 30.5 billion won to Pusan National University.

President Lee Myung-bak is also on the list of figures who have donated large amounts of their fortunes to society, as he donated 33.1 billion won to create a scholarship foundation. There are also many other people who have given back to society the fortune they saved through hard work. I am suddenly reminded of the celebrities known as “donation angels” such as singer Kim Jang-hoon and actress Moon Geun-young.

Almost all wealthy people in the United States give back part of their fortunes to society. In the past, there were business magnates like Rockefeller and Carnegie, and today, there are Warren Buffett and Bill Gates. Thanks to their generous donations, universities have enough funds for research and scholarships, and a virtuous cycle allowing outstanding students with financial difficulties to study has been established.

I hope this culture of donations that has sprung up recently in Korea will take root. I propose, first of all, that leading figures who have made large amounts of donations step forward to form a group and lead a campaign for donations. The group could be called the “30 billion won club.” It is only natural for those who set a good example to take the lead.

Second, I believe there is a need to systematically study the lives of such people. They have something in common. All of them experienced financial hardships during their childhoods. They could not receive a proper education when they were young and went through difficulties because of poverty.

What is it that led them to succeed in their lives and made them give back their fortunes to society? Finding out what that certain something is would be a good point of reference for the education of the younger generation.

Third, the role of universities is also important. They must spend the money they received in compliance with 100 percent of the wishes of their benefactors. Using the donations for something other than the wishes of the benefactors would harm this culture of donation that philanthropists have worked so hard to create.

Dr. Ryu Geun-chul once said, “I received phone calls from the late chairmen of Samsung and Hyundai Groups in heaven last night. They said, we don’t need anything there. They told me to come with nothing.”

Isn’t this a joke that could be told at the 30 billion won club?

The writer is chair professor of the department of bio and brain engineering future industry at Kaist.

by Lee Kwang-hyung
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