I have been saying from the beginning that Korea's "advances" in cloning, which recently resulting in the cloning of a human being, were ethically suspect.
Don't get me wrong – I'm not a Bible thumper, I support the right of women have an abortion, and I think stem cell research is a a good idea. I also think that America's Puritanical over-moralizing can be an impedance to useful scientific progress. Mine is a country in which over one-half of the population claims to not believe in the theory of evolution. Most of these people do not seem to realize that a "theory" does not mean "unfounded conjecture," as it is generally used in the colloquial sense of the word. It means a set of hypotheses that continue to be confirmed by reproducible, confirmable tests against observed reality. No one talks about evolution as being just a "theory" when salmonella bacteria evolve into super-resistant strains and kill people. Evolution at work, fools.
Korea is a country in which the removal of ethical controls in the name of "development" at any cost resulted in "progress" – but with serious negative side effects. Yes, Korea's economy developed at a kick-ass rate and Pak Chung Hee is directly responsible for taking the economy in its successful direction, at times to the chagrin of this country's former American master. Yet, along with that rapid development came the brutal suppression of democracy and basic freedoms, kidnapping and torture, as well as outright murder, both overt and as-of-yet still secret. Female labor was exploited to the greatest possible extreme, even to the point that the government actively supported and fostered the sex industry. Korean soldiers in Vietnam, pumped up on the intense anti-Communist ideology that taught that North Koreans had tails and horns, committed the most horrific and infamous war crimes in that ill-fated war. As any Vietnamese or American Vietnam veteran will tell you, the South Koreans were both feared and respected for the brutal ways in which it dealt with the Viet Cong.
Labor unions were savagely broken up, and government-hired thugs beat down men, women, and children when squatters refused to move off of the land that the government had rezoned, resold, or simply wanted to hide away from the eyes of foreign visitors, lest any white folks see urban poverty from the side of the road during the 1988 Olympics.
And then, suddenly, in a field that holds as much social importance and impact as the development of nuclear technology, Korea is bragging about having – to the world's surprise – cloned a human being. Even the Slate.com fluff piece on the subject of the "biotech mystery" of "why Korea leads the world in stem-cell research" ignored the very point it actually brought up – that for some reason, although Korean society possesses a large and evangelical Christian contingent, it is remarkably apolitical and barely bats an eye at subjects such as abortion and, in recent days, the moral quandary posed by the advent of human cloning. It then goes on to mention how abortion is nominally illegal in South Korea, but is in reality as safe and easy to get as in any country in which it is legal – which is quite true. But in the very next breath, the Slate commentator talks about the positive prospects for such sensitive research in South Korea because of international controls and regulations. Naw, we shouldn't worry. On to the next point.
Huh? Didn't we just establish that Korea has never been a stickler about following its own stated laws, let alone the faraway protocols and controls of international organizations? I mean, ferchrissakes, prosititution is illegal in this country, but the police are the ones who oversee the red light districts. Abortion is illegal, yet it's easier to get one here than in the States – at least you don't have to deal with being verbally and physically assaulted by extreme Christian rightists here. I'm not arguing for whether prostitution or abortion should be legal or not; what I am pointing out is that although both are already illegal in this country, the law means absolutely nothing. Such is the case for parents giving bribes to teachers in schools as a rule, students offering sexual favors for a grade, or the fact that there are cabarets everywhere that cater only to married people who want to have one-night stands with each other.
I'm not saying the United States or any other country in the world has a monopoly on morality. What I am saying is that there seems to have been a disconnect somewhere in the rush for development in this country that has fostered the message that development and "getting ahead" is important enough to get there by any means necessary. This mentality is what leads to "education fever" that convinces healthy 18 year-olds to take flying leaps off buildings if they fail an exam, or the statistic that 1 in 4 high school girls has exchanged sex for money or favors in some form (in one study done by a Korean researcher for a paper on sex in cyberspace). If it seems high, let me tell you that after having worked in Korean public, private, and especially alternative schools – this number seems to reflect reality, believe it or not. There's even a name for the concept of underage female girls having sex for "compensation" – wonjo kyoje (원조교제) – which may give you a sense of how everyday such acts are. I'm not saying everyone's doing it – I'm just saying that it's not unusual. Not a social problem you hear about in the oft-described "liberal" or "morally corrupt" United States. Ah, right – Korea's is a "family-oriented" society.
So now we hear that Dr. Hwang has violated international protocols in genetic research, his main foreign research partner has pulled out, and he has resigned as the director of the research center he was to lead.
Good – that's a start. Maybe there'll be some real soul-searching through public discourse as to the moral price South Korea has paid for rapid development – most of the Korean social problems that I teach about in my university class on the same subject find their origins in the present century, from ideologies having to do with race and nation, the government's relationship with organized labor, the particular modes of women's labor and sexual oppression, ad infinitum. And now, in the first steps taking in human cloning, we find out that the South Korean research team ignored protocols from the git go. Is anyone surprised? The sad thing is that most Koreans will probably say, "What's the big deal?" and forgive these ethical transgressions as "necessary evils" or the dirty little secrets that just get created when you wanna get anything done that's worth doing. Hey, that's been the way of things in South Korea for nearly a century. Why should this be any different?
Well, I happen to think that genetics and human cloning are technologies that rival the splitting of the atom in terms of their socially explosive energy. Leaving this – without due consideration and international cooperation and supervision, to a vainglorious, nationalist drive to simply be "first" for the sake of being so, "damn the torpedoes" – that scares the living shit out if me.
These technologies are bigger than any single nation's drive for vain pride and scientific glory. This statement goes for the US, South Korea, England, or any other nation engaging in such important work. I thought so when watching the bombastic summer thriller The Island in a South Korean movie theater. In the fictional world of that film, there were international controls on human cloning that had been completely ignored in the face of selfish vanity. Was I the only one to get a chill from watching it in the very country that had just proudly announced having been the first to clone a human being? I guess I'm the only one to get that irony.
And speaking of things Greek, I believe, as our Hellenic foreparents did, that fate has a way of punishing humanity for its continuing, unabashed hubris. Her name is Nemesis, and I hear she's a bitch. And from my read of history, she ain't never late to the party.