South Korean Cloning Scandal Takes Toll on Whistle-Blowers

Times Staff Writer

Like many scandals, this one started with an anonymous tip and a cloak-and-dagger meeting in the dead of night.

Deep Throat was a South Korean doctor in his early 30s known as “Mr. K.” Last summer, he sent an e-mail to an investigative television program complaining that his former boss had fabricated groundbreaking results of human embryonic cloning. After some negotiations, he arranged to meet with the show’s producer after working hours at the doctor’s hospital. They found an empty office, locked the door behind them, and lowered their voices.

The outcome was anything but a whisper. The ensuing scandal has resounded around the world and may go down as one of the greatest science hoaxes of all time. Mr. K’s former boss, acclaimed scientist Hwang Woo Suk, is in disgrace and has been fired by Seoul National University. South Korea’s presidential advisor on science has resigned, and a massive criminal investigation is underway.

But life has not been so grand for those who broke the story, either.

Instead of plaudits for his courage, Mr. K had to resign from the hospital. He is unemployed.


South Korea’s MBC Television, which broke the story on the investigative program “PD Notebook,” was beset by protests from viewers and advertisers outraged by the affront to a national hero. The broadcaster’s stock price crashed, and the program was taken off the air for two weeks.

It was nasty stuff. Enraged Hwang supporters distributed a photograph on the Internet of the program’s producer, Han Hak Soo, his wife and their 4-year-old child.

“Let’s kill those three!” read one message accompanying the photograph.

Concerned, MBC’s management tried to send him to Europe for a three-month training program to place him out of harm’s way. Then, when Han was preparing to leave, he was banned from leaving the country because of a lawsuit filed against him.

“It was as though we had brought down a sacred cow in South Korea, and people were really angry,” said Choi Seung Ho, an MBC executive producer.

The behind-the-scenes story of how the cloning fraud came to light tells a lot about South Korea today. On the positive side, Korean scientists, doctors and journalists cared enough about the truth to be willing to stand up to the establishment.

“This is a remarkable event in the democratization of our society. Not long ago it would have been unimaginable for a junior researcher to disobey their seniors like this,” said Kim Chang Kyu, a prominent Seoul gynecologist and advocate for patients’ rights.

But the uproar over Hwang also revealed an ugly streak of nationalism. As is often the case in South Korea, the most wired nation in the world, it manifested itself most clearly on the Internet, where die-hard Hwang loyalists pursued whistle-blowers and the investigative journalists with cult-like fanaticism. Bloggers and online newspapers have accused them of trying to extort money from Hwang.

The 24-hour news channel YTN, which is owned by the semiofficial Yonhap News Agency, launched a campaign against Hwang’s detractors, at one point enlisting members of the National Assembly to investigate MBC for unethical conduct.

Although overwhelming evidence has emerged that Hwang fabricated his most acclaimed results, the scientist still has a core of believers.

On Feb. 4, one crushed fan immolated himself in Seoul in front of a statue of Yi Sun Shin, a 16th century war hero to whom many South Koreans today are comparing Hwang. The man, in his 50s, had been seen scattering pamphlets calling on Hwang to continue his research. A few hours after the suicide, about 2,000 Hwang supporters marched nearby in frigid darkness carrying candles and waving South Korean flags.

Some supporters argue that even if Hwang lied, the South Korean media shouldn’t have exposed him because it will put the country at a disadvantage with the United States in the competitive biotech industry.

“You’re America’s dog,” fumed a Hwang loyalist in an angry posting on MBC’s online bulletin board. “Those who buried the greatest scientist in the history of the Korean people will incur the wrath of the heavens.”

In addition to Mr. K, researchers helped bust Hwang by posting crucial pieces of information on a website called Bric, short for Biological Research Information Center. They all remained anonymous, not daring even after Hwang’s fabrications were confirmed to take credit for busting him.

“Anonymity has its advantages. They could have come under heavy attack if their identities were known,” said Nam Hong Gil, a professor at Pohang University and one of the founders of the site. When it comes to whistle-blowers, Nam said, “perhaps there is a difference between East and West. Koreans didn’t want to stand up and boast about this case.”

MBC Television has never identified Mr. K, who appeared on camera with his face and voice obscured. Choi, the executive producer, said he is an idealistic young doctor who “was purely motivated by a sense of injustice.”

“He was not motivated by personal anger or profits. He felt that Hwang’s deception would ultimately hurt stem cell research and Korean society,” Choi said. After Mr. K’s identity was leaked, the young doctor came under fire at his hospital and resigned.

“Mr. K was about to be kicked out by the hospital. His bosses could not stand the pressure,” Choi said. “He now does not have a job.”

Pro-Hwang websites and Hwang himself have identified one whistle-blower as 32-year-old Ryu Young Joon, a doctor who is married to another Hwang researcher.

Ryu resigned in December from his residency at the Korean Cancer Center in Seoul as the scandal was reaching its frenzied peak. Hong Suk Il, the head of the hospital, said Ryu had to resign because he had stopped coming to work and couldn’t fulfill the requirements for the residency.

“I think he left due to stress. He was getting a lot of telephone calls from the general public and the press,” Hong said.

Ryu could not be reached for comment, and MBC would not comment when asked whether he was Mr. K.

He has been called to testify by a prosecutor investigating Hwang for fraud. Hwang has accused him and other junior researchers of being responsible for concocting the fake clones.

Ryu was listed as the second author, after Hwang, on a February 2004 report trumpeting the creation of the first human clone. But he removed his name from a second paper published in May 2005 with the even more sensational claim of having produced stem cells from clones of chronically ill patients.

In June 2005, soon after the second paper was published, MBC’s “PD Notebook” received the e-mail claiming that Hwang had fudged the papers. The television producers, by their own admission uneducated as to the arcane points of stem cell research, spent months investigating.

In November, they thought they had enough to broadcast what would prove to be the tip of the iceberg: a report that Hwang had used eggs from his female researchers in violation of international scientific standards. Although Hwang promptly acknowledged that he had done so, the story engendered so much wrath that MBC began to back off. The network received more than 500,000 angry e-mails, said Song Weon Geun, MBC’s director of international relations.

Other South Korean media quickly reported that MBC had used unethical techniques in its reporting, using hidden cameras and threatening former Hwang aides with prosecution if they didn’t cooperate.

The network issued an apology, suspended “PD Notebook” producers Choi and Han for a month without pay and pulled the show off the air.

On the night of Dec. 4, Choi and Han were at a bar, drowning their sorrows and debating whether to give their material to journalists with other news organizations.

Their lucky break came just in time.

While they were drinking, an anonymous scientist posted photographs on the Bric website; one showed Hwang’s purported stem cell clone next to an older photograph of a stem cell that appeared to be identical. It appeared that at the very least, Hwang had used fake photos in his report.

There was another smoking gun the next day in the form of a posting from a scientist who had analyzed the DNA fingerprints of the clones and found them suspect.

Although they were technically off duty, the producers went back to work. With Hwang’s lies rapidly unraveling, more witnesses came forward.

On Dec. 15, MBC aired its program saying Hwang had not created patient-tailored stem cells.

In the ensuing weeks, Seoul National University confirmed MBC’s findings and further discredited Hwang’s original 2004 paper claiming the creation of the first human clone.

Adding further weight to the case against Hwang, South Korean auditors announced Feb. 6 that the scientist might have misappropriated $6.4 million in state and private research funds for his personal use.

But MBC is hardly able to crow “I told you so.”

Of the 12 advertisers who were regular sponsors of “PD Notebook,” only two are advertising now, Choi said.

Although the “pro-truth” camp, as Choi puts it, is now beginning to outweigh the pro-Hwang camp, the network still receives about 1,500 messages a day complaining about the coverage.

“Even now,” Choi said, “people still believe in Hwang’s righteousness.”