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Not so fast: Scientist reeling

Fri., Dec. 23, 2005

SEOUL, South Korea – Six-day workweeks from morning until night. Companies trumpeting bigger and bigger flat-screen TVs. A government that proclaims it wants to be a “hub” for everything from finance to robots.

South Korea is fiercely committed to being No. 1, and doing it yesterday.

As South Korea’s top scientist Hwang Woo-suk falls from his lofty perch amid a wave of allegations questioning his research, the country’s competitive culture of always hurrying – coupled with a healthy sense of national pride and craving for international recognition – could be partly to blame.

“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 sociology professor at Korea University. “It’s a problem of our social system that desires fast results.”

Hailed as the “Pride of Korea,” Hwang and all of his purported breakthroughs are now being investigated by science journals and universities.

Emerging from relative obscurity to reveal the world’s first cloned human embryo in 2004, Hwang racked up a series of amazing achievements. He claimed this year to have cloned stem cells matched to patients with never-before-seen efficiency, and also created the first-ever cloned dog.

As he announced one stride after another, the country rallied around him. Hwang, a trained veterinarian, was designated South Korea’s first-ever “top scientist” in June by the government, winning special funding.

After Hwang admitted ethics lapses last month, the scientist’s supporters still stood by him. But acknowledging “fatal errors,” Hwang last week requested that the journal Science withdraw a May article.

“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 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.

The high-speed culture is such a feature of South Korean society that it’s a commonly used catch-phrase: “ppalli ppalli,” meaning “hurry hurry.”

It’s symbolized in everything from the hellish traffic in Seoul to South Koreans’ love of quick-hit coffee and energy drinks and downing shots of alcohol in a single gulp.

The dynamic culture has its upside, helping South Koreans build their country from the ruins of the Korean War into the world’s 11th largest economy. Companies like Samsung Electronics are leaders in production of memory chips, flat-screen displays and mobile phones. South Koreans didn’t “get to where they are today without hustling,” said Mike Weisbart, a columnist at the Korea Times.

But there have been downsides, too – sometimes with deadly effect.

In 1995, a Seoul department store collapsed, killing 501 people, in an accident blamed on faulty construction because of illegal design changes made after bribes to officials – payments referred to as “hurry-up” money. A bridge also 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.


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