He's a liar and a fraud. So why do Koreans still love Hwang Woo-suk?

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 April, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 10 April, 2006, 12:00am

To the scientific world at large, he is a disgrace and a fraud.

But to thousands of diehard South Korean supporters, cloning researcher Hwang Woo-suk remains a source of pride - and a rallying point for nationalist fervour.

The latter point explains why, five months after his scientific 'breakthroughs' were first exposed as bogus, Dr Hwang retains immense popularity in his homeland, according to psychology experts.

'Those supporters just can't let their hopes slip away,' said Kwak Keum-joo, a professor of psychology at Seoul National University. 'They are like the people who predict wrongly that the end of the world is coming - and are still hoping it will occur 10 years later.'

The 56-year old stem-cell researcher is currently the subject of a criminal investigation but he has already been found guilty by Seoul National University, where he formerly worked as a veterinarian scientist, of falsely claiming to have cloned a human embryo.

Critics have condemned what they see as the irrational fanaticism of many of Dr Hwang's diehard backers. Nevertheless, thousands of Koreans have attended mass rallies calling for him to be given a chance to prove his previous claims. Some female fans have offered to donate their eggs for his research.

Fierce nationalism which powered the support for the scientist has been identified as one reason for the continued backing from loyal followers.

'The social factors that gave birth to his [Dr Hwang's] legend are still intact around us. It can be generally described as 'Hwang Woo-suk patriotism',' the JoongAng Daily said.

Despite the findings of fraud, on his fan-club website, 'I love Hwang Woo-suk', one blogger continues to describe the scientist as a 'helpless Korean patriot', while another expressed continued faith in Dr Hwang and the belief that he would eventually be vindicated.

His most faithful supporters have been quick to respond to those they identify as Hwang opponents, physically attacking members of the Seoul National University inquiry board.

'Many people just do not understand why Hwang's supporters are so loyal to him. A greater number of people do not accept means such as attempted suicides, name-calling, manhandling and disruption of academic conferences. That is the wrong way to stand by a wrong cause,' declared an editorial in the Korean Herald.

Meanwhile, a steady stream of claims and counterclaims have raised questions about the reliability of the university's findings and provided additional reason for supporters to continue backing the veterinarian.

In recent days, a group of Dr Hwang's supporters have been holding protests outside buildings of broadcaster KBS after the network pulled a documentary believed to have been favourable towards the scientist.

Part of the transcript of the programme, uploaded on to the internet, alleges that Dr Hwang's former collaborator, Gerald Schatten of the University of Pittsburgh, tried to steal technology developed by Dr Hwang for a patent.

While many mainstream South Koreans acknowledge the damage caused by Dr Hwang, they also frequently point to his feat in producing the world's first-ever cloned dog - a legitimate achievement acknowledged by the university inquiry.

'Some part of me still believes in Hwang Woo-suk. He cloned a dog - that's not an easy achievement. It shows a high level of skill,' said 40-year old Cha Kyung.

But for most, the overwhelming response to Dr Hwang is one of disgrace. 'I was abroad when this whole Hwang Woo-suk issue exploded, and people asked me over and over again about it. I was so ashamed and embarrassed,' said Ko Eun-young, a medical doctor.