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Hwang Scandal Reveals a Fractured Society
The pitched battle between conservative and liberal media centered on truth vs. national pride
Jean K. Min (jean)     Print Article 
Published 2005-12-28 17:40 (KST)   
Hwang Woo Suk answers questions at a press conference held at Seoul National University on Dec. 16.
©2005 Kwon W.S.
Hwang Woo Suk's stem cell fabrication scandal has exposed a decades-old ideological fault line lurking in the bedrock of Korean society.

Since the first tumultuous days after Korean TV broadcaster MBC broke the story about the fabrications of the stem cell paper published in the journal Science last month, sociology students have made Korea into a huge research lab in its own right. For them, the issues behind the massive scandal have encapsulated Korea's political and social conflicts.

Kang Joon Man, media observer who teaches journalism in Jeonbuk National University pointed out that "Hwang was a rare kind in the society where silence and single-minded focus on research work are praised as the virtues of sincere scientists."

For a scientist, he was not afraid to appear on national television and seemed even to enjoy making public appearances. His perceived embellishment of the imminent potential of his stem cell research often raised the ire of his peers, but his succinct language and popular communication style bought him huge public support among Koreans, Kang observed.

A local publicist based in Seoul noted that his dexterity in handling media interviews would match that of her clients who finished first-rate media training sessions. She added that judging from Hwang's almost daily media appearances over the past couple of years, one might wonder if he ever had time for the research at his research lab at Seoul National University.

This goes a long way to explain why the Korean press belatedly jumped on the Hwang-bashing bandwagon after MBC's current affairs program "PD Notebook" broke the flabbergasting story about the fabrication of research in the journal Science. Most in the Korean media seemed to have no courage to stand up to Hwang and his popular following.

It is clear that mostly progressive and liberal Korean media, including MBC and other Internet news media, led to Hwang's unmasking. Their reporting stands in stark contrast to the pro-Hwang reports led mainly by conservative dailies and YTN, a 24-hour Korean cable news channel.

Chosun Ilbo, a top conservative daily in Korea, did its best to protect Hwang from the inquisitive journalists and probing eyes of young scientists on the Web. Instead of asking tough questions and demanding that he dispel mounting suspicions, the daily denounced the producers of "PD Notebook" for breaches of journalistic ethics that came to light after the first program was aired; these included bullying tactics to get a confession from Kim Sun Jong, Hwang's junior research colleague in the University of Pittsburgh, for which MBC later apologized publicly.

As if to reward the Chosun Ilbo for its depiction of Hwang as a "victim," the Seoul National University professor granted exclusive interviews to the paper not once but three times, while the rest of the press were camped outside his research lab. It seemed that the Chosun Ilbo was almost determined to play the role of a mouthpiece for Hwang.

Meanwhile, YTN, which together with the Chosun Ilbo was the most belligerent critic of MBC, was found last night to have helped Ahn Curie to carry over US$30,000 to Kim Sun Jong, who at the time was in the Pittsburgh. It was reported that Ahn asked the reporter of YTN to bring $10,000, the maximum sum allowed by law for an international traveler.

YTN later interviewed Kim Sun Jong in his Pittsburgh lab and reported extensively about the ethical breaches MBC producers committed during their earlier interview with him. However they omitted sections of the interview that show Kim Sun Jong actually confirming his earlier testimony about Hwang's request to fabricate 11 stem cells pictures out of two that were submitted to the journal Science.

YTN was also found to have traveled to U.S with the financial support of Hwang's lab, raising questions about its own ethical standards.

Ahn said yesterday that the money was offered to Kim to help him recover from the shock he had been through after his first interview with MBC. He tried to kill himself after he confessed to MBC producer, Ahn alleged. Despite her explanation, questions remain about whether Hwang's team was trying to bribe Kim to change his initial MBC testimony in a subsequent YTN interview.

Overall, Koreans are feeling remorse and despair after Hwang's international disgrace but many still refuse to back down on the veracity of stem cell techniques Hwang's team insist they have mastered.

However, a Dec. 17 The New York Times editorial wrote "science and journalism in South Korea are vigorous and independent despite this huge black mark," referring to the discrepancies in photos and other data that were largely brought to light by "young Korean scientists and crusading Korean journalists."

The pitched battle between conservative and liberal media was really about whether Korean society should choose the track of truth or national pride -- albeit on false pretenses. Koreans can find solace in the fact that the journalists who refused to give up on their pursuit of the truth came out on top.

Related Articles
S. Korea To Seek Parliamentary Probe Into Stem Cell Scandal
Hwang Guilty of Fraud: SNU
Publishers Feel Effects of Hwang Scandal
Hwang and Bush Have Led the People Astray

©2005 OhmyNews

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