Why does Korea lead the world in cloning research?

Lessons for the U.S. from abroad.
Oct. 19 2005 1:15 PM

The Seoul of Clones

Solving a biotech mystery: Why South Korea leads the world in stem-cell research.

Download the MP3 audio version of this story here, or sign up to get all of Slate's free daily podcasts.

(Continued from Page 1)

The work culture is not merely relentless, it is also collectivist. In American and European labs, Cibelli says, researchers jockey to test their own hypotheses, run their own experiments, and publish their own papers. At Hwang's lab, scientists take their orders from the top, work ferociously to carry them out, and let the glory fall to the boss. This is likely the product of Korea's Confucian tradition. Confucianism teaches that workplaces should be run as benevolent hierarchies, with younger and junior people obediently taking guidance from seniors. Stem-cell research depends much more on technical proficiency than blue-sky brainstorming. It fits well with a collectivist approach that focuses the entire scientific team on a single goal.

Korea reveres scientists more than we do. Science is trendy in Korea. It attracts the nation's best students. There's no nerd derision. Hwang Woo-suk is a celebrity in a way we can't imagine an American scientist could be. The national law-enforcement agency assigns officers to protect him. Korean Airlines flies him around the world for free. The minister of science and technology ranks at the top of the South Korean Cabinet—as high as the secretary of state or treasury in the United States. While most foreign scientists who study in the United States end up staying there, nearly 90 percent of Korean scientists end up returning home, despite much lower salaries.

Advertisement

The reverence for science helps cloning research, in particular, because cloning requires a huge supply of fresh human eggs. For one recent paper, Hwang and his colleagues used nearly 200 eggs collected from Korean women. To gather such a supply of eggs in the United States would be practically impossible, legally dubious, and financially ruinous. But Hwang has a waiting list of Korean women who have volunteered to donate eggs for free, to help his cause.

Korea had a rotten 20th century—occupied by Japan, split by war, driven into a miserable poverty. (At war's end, Korea was one of the world's poorest countries.) Koreans felt acutely the shame of being booted from the ranks of important nations, of being supplanted by China and Japan. It is hard to overstate just how driven Koreans are to make Korea a great nation. This nationalism has helped Korea nudge aside whatevermoral objections to cloning have popped up. Though Korea has banned cloning for reproductive purposes, it has enthusiastically supported the research cloning that so troubles American conservatives. The ethical concerns in Seoul are minor, weighed against Korea's chance to become the world leader in the next great biotech industry.

Still, the most important reason why Korea leads the cloning race has nothing to do with the nation. The majority of Korea's stem-cell and cloning advances have been made by a single man, the profoundly brilliant, enthusiastic, and energetic Hwang. Korea's government, religion, culture, reverence for science, nationalism, and skinny chopsticks may make it possible for the nation to be a world leader in this research. But it is an individual genius who is turning his nation's potential into actual stem cells.

TODAY IN SLATE

History

The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

Michigan’s Tradition of Football “Toughness” Needs to Go—Starting With Coach Hoke

Does Your Child Have “Sluggish Cognitive Tempo”? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

The First Case of Ebola in America Has Been Diagnosed in Dallas

Why Indians in America Are Mad for India’s New Prime Minister

Damned Spot

Now Stare. Don’t Stop.

The perfect political wife’s loving gaze in campaign ads.

Building a Better Workplace

You Deserve a Pre-cation

The smartest job perk you’ve never heard of.

Don’t Panic! The U.S. Already Stops Ebola and Similar Diseases From Spreading. Here’s How.

Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD

The XX Factor
Sept. 30 2014 12:34 PM Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD
  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 30 2014 6:59 PM The Democrats’ War at Home Can the president’s party defend itself from the president’s foreign policy blunders?
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 30 2014 7:02 PM At Long Last, eBay Sets PayPal Free
  Life
Gaming
Sept. 30 2014 7:35 PM Who Owns Scrabble’s Word List? Hasbro says the list of playable words belongs to the company. Players beg to differ.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 30 2014 12:34 PM Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 30 2014 3:21 PM Meet Jordan Weissmann Five questions with Slate’s senior business and economics correspondent.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 30 2014 4:45 PM Steven Soderbergh Is Doing Some Next-Level Work on The Knick
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 7:00 PM There’s Going to Be a Live-Action Tetris Movie for Some Reason
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 30 2014 6:44 PM Ebola Was Already Here How the United States contains deadly hemorrhagic fevers.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 30 2014 5:54 PM Goodbye, Tough Guy It’s time for Michigan to fire its toughness-obsessed coach, Brady Hoke.