Sunday, December 25, 2005

 

``ppalli ppalli'' is a symbol of Korean traits

Scandal Puts Focus on South Korean Culture
Thursday December 22, 2005 8:47 PM

AP Photo SEL102
By BURT HERMAN
Associated Press Writer

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) - Six-day work weeks 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. The Foreign Ministry assigned a diplomat to assist him with international contacts.

Korean Air even gave Hwang and his wife free first-class flights for a decade, calling the scientist a ``national treasure.''

Not settling with Hwang's earlier success, the Ministry of Science and Technology pledged this year to make the country one of the eight world powers in the field, and ``provide a liberal and stable research environment to brilliant researchers and generate the second, the third Hwang Woo-suk.''

Hwang's work ``grew into a state project with government backing and then became the people's project, adding a massive weight of national expectation,'' the daily Chosun Ilbo wrote in a recent editorial.

``That very fact simply short-circuited any stringent verification procedures by scientists and the government,'' the newspaper said. ``Scientists kept mum because they saw hope in one of their own becoming a national hero, and the government was happy to bask in reflected glory without asking too many questions.''

After Hwang admitted ethics lapses last month by accepting eggs from female workers at his lab, the scientist's supporters still stood by him and hundreds of women offered to give their eggs.

But acknowledging ``fatal errors,'' Hwang last week requested that the journal Science withdraw a May article, acknowledging that at the time of publication his team had created only eight stem cell lines - not 11 as claimed - but produced the final three later. One of Hwang's former collaborators has said nine of the stem cells lines were entirely faked, and questioned the validity of the two others.

``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 and Mad Max-esque bus drivers, to South Koreans' love of quick-hit coffee and energy drinks and downing shots of alcohol in a single gulp. A government campaign seems to have stemmed citizens' penchant to crowd in front of subway cars and not let exiting passengers leave before trying to push inside.

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 - and such corporate achievements are regularly feted in local media as a source of pride for all.

South Koreans didn't ``get to where they are today without hustling,'' said Mike Weisbart, a columnist at The Korea Times. That speed will also help the country quickly recover and keep up its breakneck development no matter the results of the Hwang scandal, he said.

``There's still way more dynamism going on here and much more lethargy in the West,'' Weisbart said.

But there is 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.

In central Seoul, Ahn Sang-bok, 38, a bank employee, was running across a bridge to get back to the office.

``I'm always in a rush, time is considered most important in our society and being No. 1 is definitely considered well by others,'' he said. ``I think Hwang had this kind of pressure and that's why he rushed his research.''

The quest for success and the run to get there starts young. Fifteen-year-old Jo Moon-joo, walking in downtown Seoul in her school uniform of checkered skirt and navy blue sweater, said teachers seat children in class by test results.

``If you get the highest mark you sit at the very front, and so on,'' she said. ``Teachers and mothers force us to become the first in everything.''

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