Leader with a vision for science

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Leader with a vision for science

 Chung Jae-hong
The author is an international, foreign policy and security news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

In a joint statement released after the May 21 summit at the White House, President Moon Jae-in and U.S. President Joe Biden pledged cooperation on developing nuclear reactors overseas, including launching a joint project for the goal. The statement translates into Washington’ willingness to advance to the global reactors market after recognizing Korea’s strength in nuclear technology. If Korea with strength in nuclear plant construction joins hands with the United States with expertise in designing reactors, Korea can significantly ratchet up the competitiveness of its reactors.
But the problem is that if the Moon Jae-in administration wants to sell nuclear reactors while sticking with its cherished nuclear phase-out policy, the president’s campaign promise, Korea can hardly earn trust from the rest of the world. It does not make sense to pitch your reactors in international markets while shutting down reactors in your homeland.
Moon’s decision to phase out nuclear power plants in Korea was based on ideology, not science. His administration’s rush to close down nuclear plants before the renewable energy technology is fully developed produces a plethora of side effects such as a drastic surge in electricity generation costs. First of all, Korea’s domestic habitat for nuclear plants started crumbling. Companies related to the sector are suffering huge losses and the number of students aspiring to study nuclear engineering significantly dropped. Four years into the nuclear phase-out, students majoring in nuclear science at KAIST decreased by half.
The technology the Moon administration is exterminating was hard-earned with the tears and sweat of our scientists and engineers in the barren land of science. Former Science and Technology Minister Chung Keun-mo’s new book “The Scientists of a Country That Worked a Miracle” vividly shows the painful journey of a country with no knowledge about modern science moving toward the goal of garnering the highest level of nuclear technology through a concerted effort of the government, industry and academia over the past decades. Thanks to their devotion and dedication, Korea could develop — and export — four Korean-model APR1400 reactors to Arab Emirates.
If the Moon administration tries to make all the marvelous achievements by our scientists futile, that’s a big mistake. The liberals seem to believe they can change all our experiences and systems overnight. As seen in their never-ending real estate fiasco, policies that blindly dismiss reality are doomed to fail.
The Covid-19 pandemic showed that a head of state must choose between ideology and science in times of crisis. Former U.S. President Donald Trump once disgraced America with the most Covid-19 cases and deaths around the globe after dismissing the imminent danger. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is still paying a heavy price for his government’s half-baked response to the pandemic.
In the initial stages, Korea was lauded as a leader in battling the pandemic thanks to its fast development of test kits and people’s active participation in wearing face masks and social distancing. But the government simply brushed off the medical community’s advice that it purchase Covid-19 vaccines as early as possible, and as a result, Korea lags far behind other advanced countries in vaccinations.
A country which has a head of state with a vision for science and technology can succeed. Former President Park Chung Hee was one such leader. Despite criticisms for his oppression of democracy over his long-term rule, he made a great contribution to the development of science and technology in Korea. Spearheading a crusade for their advancement, Park first created an environment where scientists and engineers are respected. The ex-military general-turned president even accepted a proposal for exempting military duty for students of KAIST to attract smart students to the prestigious school.
The amazing growth of the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, the world largest foundry, was possible because of the far-sighted vision of state leaders. The company was established in 1987 by former Taiwanese President Jiang Jingguo, who brought in Taiwanese scientists from overseas after foreseeing the immense potential of the systems-on-chip industry down the road. Even when the opposition took power in elections, the government’s priority on systems chips didn’t change
President Moon fell short of presenting visions for science and technology and implementing them as he was engrossed with rooting out past evils, stoking anti-Japanese sentiment among the public, and fixing one policy fiasco after another in the real estate market over the last four years. On March 9 next year, Koreans elect their new leader. If they really want to take another leap forward, a head of state with unflinching visions for science and technology will make it possible.
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