I haven’t had much time to write lately with the lead-up to Christmas. My Christmas cards haven’t been mailed yet, and I haven’t even sent out the Christmas e-cards yet. I haven’t even purchased gifts for my wife and child. I am so ashamed. But I have been spend more time offline with my family, which I consider to be a good thing. Forgive me, Dear Reader, for posting intermittently. As always, it’s a shame that the commercialization of Christmas makes the holidays so much busier and less cheerful.
If you live in Korea, by now you’ve probably read about Dr. Hwang ad nauseum. Dr. Hwang Woo-Suk is a doctor of veterinary science at Seoul National University and expert in stem cell research and cloning whose has been accused of improprieties and ethical lapses. I featured Dr. Hwang in my August 4th blog entry, where I discussed Korea and its role in the future of cloning. If you live outside Korea, you may also have heard about Dr. Hwang and the recent controversy about his research. I won’t go into detail about what happened because it is such a touchy subject. I am not an expert in cloning and don’t have enough information to have an opinion on his case. I direct you to The Marmot’s Hole, which has many insights and links to various sources to learn more about Dr. Hwang’s predicament.
At the same time, I would be remiss if I failed to mention such an important and controversial topic in Korea today. This is perhaps the "hottest" news story in Korea right now, or at least a close second to alleged North Korean counterfeiting and the Korean Government’s response. I won’t postulate whether Dr. Hwang and members of his team are guilty or innocent of the accusations. The findings of the investigation won’t be released for at least another month (Seoul National University will decide his fate). Instead, I want to focus on an interesting dynamic in Korean society laid bare by this controversy; that is, the delicate interplay between the Korean media and the fundamental institutions of Korean society. I define these instutions to be the primary political and economic entities in Korean society, include the government and industry.
The Korean media often clashes with these institutions. The Korean media, recently voted the as having the greatest press freedom in Asia, is a very potent force in Korea (Korea scored even higher than the United States). Much like yin and yang, there exists a delicate balance between the Korean media and institutions. The media reports on the excesses of these institutions, such as when a politician is corrupt or misspeaks, and occasionally the institutions rein in the media, such as when the Korean Government blocks certain web sites. The Korean public ultimately becomes the arbiter of these disputes, supporting either media contentions or government intervention when a major conflict exists between them. In some cases, the media wins, and in others, the institutions win. Yin and yang did not appear on the Korean flag by chance–they are still very much alive in Korean society and fighting for balance.
Dr. Hwang in many ways embodies one of the nascent, yet increasingly vital Korean institutions–Korea’s medical industry. Dr. Hwang is extremely popular among Koreans for pioneering stem cell research and increasing the stature of Korea’s domestic medical industry. He is such an icon that he even appeared on a Korean postage stamp. Dr. Hwang and his team are now the central figures in a fascinating tragicomedy playing out between the Korean medical industry, particularly Seoul National University, and the Korean media. What I find most interesting is that as this controversy has played out, the tension between institutions and the media has been particularly acute. It will remain heated until balance has been reached. Dr. Hwang is currently under investigation as a result of an MBC news report broadcast recently. Consequently, MBC received the ire of many Korean protesters, and the show that sparked the controversy, "PD Notebook," has been cancelled despite 15 successful seasons on the air. The Korean public, at least those I have surveyed, have tempered their admiration of Dr. Hwang with the realization that the investigation of Dr. Hwang must be conducted fairly and uncover the truth, even if it brings the downfall of Dr. Hwang. It remains to be seen whether the Korean public decides in favor of the media or in favor of Dr. Hwang and the medical industry.