Moon faces backlash for science office head appointment

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Moon faces backlash for science office head appointment

President Moon Jae-in faced fierce public criticism Wednesday over his recruitment of a controversial scientist who was tied to the rise and fall of the notorious cloning expert Hwang Woo-suk.

Park Ky-young, a professor of Sunchon National University, was named Monday as the new chief of the Science, Technology and Innovation Office at the Ministry of Science and ICT. Following the announcement, the Blue House faced criticism for hiring Park to the vice ministerial position in charge of the country’s research and development policies.

Park, a biology professor and science and technology-related civic activist, served as the information, science and technology policy adviser at the Roh Moo-hyun Blue House from 2004 to 2006. At the time, Moon was also working at the Roh Blue House as a senior presidential secretary.

After Park’s appointment was announced, all opposition parties fiercely condemned the decision. The appointment was also rejected by the civic groups and young scientists.

The protest comes from Park’s history with Hwang, a disgraced cloning expert who once claimed a major breakthrough in stem cell research but was later convicted for falsifying his research and embezzling government research funds. After he published papers in 2004 and 2005 claiming his team had created the world’s first cloned human embryos and extracted stem cells from them, Hwang instantly became a national hero. The government offered massive funding and assistance for his research.

But it was revealed in November 2005 that he had fabricated his research, and in 2006, the government stripped him of his license for stem cell research. He was also indicted on charges of fraud, misappropriation of state funds and bioethical violations.

Park was a key member of the Roh administration throughout Hwang’s rise and fall. Asked about her connection to Hwang and why she was still appointed, a presidential aide said the Blue House was aware of the history, but needed her expertise in overseeing research and development policy making.

Shortly after the Hwang scandal broke, the Grand National Party, the predecessor of the Liberty Korea Party, said the top echelon of the Roh administration must take responsibility. It said Hwang, Park, then policy director of the Blue House, Kim Byung-joon, and then Minister of Information and Communication Chin Dae-je were behind the scandal.

During the Roh administration, Hwang received not only financial support but other privileges. The National Intelligence Service sent an agent to accompany Hwang as a driver and an assistant under the justification of preventing a leak of national technology. About 10 police agents were dispatched to protect Hwang.

After Hwang’s was exposed as a fraud, Park resigned from her post at the Roh Blue House in January 2006. Around the same time, Moon, who was working as the senior secretary for civil affairs, expressed his intent to step down for health issues, but Roh kept him on.

One year after the scandal, Roh awarded Park an order of service merit, a decision that faced strong criticism at the time.

“Unless the president is nostalgic for the Roh administration,” said Rep. Park Dae-chul of the Liberty Korea Party, “the appointment makes no sense.”

“Naming such a person to a senior post will send the wrong message to the science community at home and abroad,” said Rep. Khang Hyo-sang of the Liberty Korea Party, “one that says the government will aid and abet scientific fraud.”

Centrist and progressive parties also condemned Moon’s decision to recruit Park. “She is a key player in the Hwang scandal,” said Rep. Lee Yong-ho, chief policymaker of the People’s Party. “But she never issued an apology. Appointing the de facto accomplice in this unprecedented case of scientific fraud to the post is like asking a cat to babysit a fish.”

The Bareun Party also said Moon must withdraw the appointment. “Although she is a plant biologist, she had pocketed consulting fees by offering advice to Hwang, who was a veterinarian, and shamelessly put her name down as a co-author,” said Rep. Ha Tae-keung. “The Blue House must make public who recommended and vetted her and the president must apologize for this.”

Even the Justice Party, an ally of the ruling Democratic Party and the Moon administration, condemned the decision.

Civic groups supporting Moon also criticized the appointment, including the Korean Union of Public Sector Research and Professional Workers under the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions. Nine other civic groups, including the People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy and Korean Federation of Activist’s Fighting for Health Rights, also issued a joint statement demanding Moon to withdraw the appointment.

Young scientists also began a movement to demand her resignation. Engineers and Scientists for Change issued an urgent statement on Wednesday. “She should have taken responsibility for the Hwang scandal, but never did,” the statement, supported by 170 members of the group and 60 additional scientists and engineers. “We are not trying to stop a scientist’s comeback with a scarlet letter. We believe she is unfit for the job, because we see no innovation from her.”

Amid the resistance, Park came to work for the new job for the first time Wednesday morning, telling reporters, “I will explain my position later.”

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