Mon, Jan 02, 2006 - Page 5 News List

Fall of `Pride of Korea' anguishes the nation

SUPERSTAR SCIENTIST The unmasking of stem cell expert Hwang Woo-suk as a fraud has left South Korea deep in shock, while some still voice support for him


A child stands in front of a portrait of Hwang Woo-suk and Snuppy, claimed to be the first successfully cloned dog, at a rally supporting Hwang in Seoul on Saturday.


If there is such a thing as the Korean Dream, then Hwang Woo-suk was surely its embodiment. At the height of his popularity he was regarded as a national hero. Colleagues feted him as a pioneer in his field; politicians rewarded his achievements with cash and citations; thousands signed up to an online group devoted to his genius; some even said he was performing the work of God.

But last week, months after he claimed to have made a breakthrough that would revolutionize the treatment of the disabled and chronically ill, Hwang's career and reputation lay in tatters after one of the most extraordinary cases of scientific deception ever perpetrated, one which could have profound implications for medical progress.

In the past few days, fellow researchers around the world have regained their composure and issued reassurances that Hwang's fall from grace does not mean the end of therapeutic cloning.

Hwang's compatriots, though, are not yet ready to listen to words of solace from outsiders as they come to terms with the fall of someone they once called the Pride of Korea. With his single-minded devotion to work and his apparent love of the simple life, Hwang embraced a near-Calvinistic ethic that guides many Koreans from childhood. For his harshest critics, Hwang didn't simply disgrace himself; he did untold harm to his country's prestige.

Hwang's work had been the subject of breathless media coverage since February 2004 and by last October, Hwang had become Korea's -- possibly the world's -- first rock star scientist. His university was inundated with requests from patients offering tissue samples and women said they would gladly donate their eggs for research.

By last week, however, the newspapers which had once filled their pages with tributes to Hwang, swallowed their pride.

"The entire country was fooled by Dr Hwang and his team," the JoongAng Daily said in an editorial. "We are ashamed and regret how we were completely deceived when we celebrated him as a scientific hero." The Korea Herald said it would take time for the country to recover from this "national trauma".

But like all disgraced heroes, Hwang still has his defenders. One wrote on the "I Love HWS" Web site: "I believe in HWS ... whatever happened, whatever happens, whatever may happen ... for he showed me the way how to live as a good Korean."

Women wearing the national flower of Korea demonstrated outside Hwang's university, holding placards saying, "Cheer up, Professor Hwang!"

Questions are now being asked about why the South Korean government, having given Hwang's team US$40 million in grants since 2003, failed to properly monitor the stem cell research. The answer appears to be that Roh Moo-hyun's administration was as in awe of the celebrity scientist as the rest of the country. It named him, somewhat ostentatiously, the First Outstanding Korean Scientist, and commissioned a set of stamps in his honor, one of which depicted an imaginary patient of Hwang's rising from his wheelchair.

Critics have accused the government of attempting to covet Hwang's accomplishments as its own, even pushing for the scientist to be put forward for a Nobel prize. The administration now refuses to comment on the panel's investigation until the final report is out.

The scandal is far from over. Hwang faces criminal charges of fraud, and no one is certain how many of his colleagues will become implicated in his web of deceit.

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