Let's try harder for Nobel Prize : The Korea Herald

Late president Kim Dae Jung, who won the 2000 peace prize for his efforts to improve relations between South and North Korea and achieve democracy in the South, is the only Korean Nobel laureate.
Late president Kim Dae Jung, who won the 2000 peace prize for his efforts to improve relations between South and North Korea and achieve democracy in the South, is the only Korean Nobel laureate.PHOTO: ST FILE

The more developed and advanced a country gets, the more Nobel Prize winners it gets. In many aspects, South Korea needs to enhance its standards in science.

(THE KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Visitors to the campus of Pohang University of Science Technology in Pohang can see four busts in an open plaza - Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, James Clerk Maxwell and Isaac Newton.

You can easily guess why the university, better known as POSTECH and which draws the nation's brightest science students, put up the busts. But you might have some curiosity when you see there are two more podiums, without the busts.

The line inscribed on the empty podiums reads "Future Scientist of Korea" and below it is a question mark in parentheses. POSTECH officials say these were reserved for future Korean winners of the Nobel Prize.

The Nobel Prize is one of the most coveted honours in the world, with its annual awards in six fields recognising individuals and organisations who have made great contributions to the human civilisation.

For the smart and highly talented students at POSTECH, becoming a Nobel laureate could be worth dreaming for their lifetime.

Like people elsewhere in the world, ordinary Koreans closely follow the early-October announcements of Nobel Prize, with the media sending out flash news each time and later churning out long stories on who the winners are and what they achieved.

The Nobel Prize website says that since 1901, 573 Nobel Prizes have been given to 870 individuals and 23 organisations, including co-winners and multiple winners.

Late President Kim Dae Jung, who won the 2000 peace prize for his efforts to improve relations between South and North Korea and achieve democracy in the South, is the only Korean laureate.

I have a fond memory of being interviewed by a Norwegian TV reporter, who happened to be a woman adopted from Korea, while I was covering the award ceremony for Kim in Oslo as a Blue House correspondent.

Besides Kim, there were some more Koreans - like poet Ko Un and some ethnic Korean scientists overseas - who had been mentioned as favourites, but none made the final list.

This reality - having produced only one laureate - often prompts soul searching in the country.

This sentiment develops into a sense of dejection during the Oct 5-12 period for Nobel Prize announcements.

"An annual event, an annual letdown," proclaimed the editorial of a major newspaper. Another editorial asked, "Why is Korea dwarfed whenever facing the Nobel Prize?"

Many editorials and columns lamenting lack of Korean winners especially focus on why South Korea - despite the remarkable modernization and economic development it has achieved in the past decades - has yet to have a Nobel Prize winner in science.

Rightfully, they point to problems with the government, education, support for scientists and even social and cultural factors.

Too often, however, what should be constructive self-reflection becomes excessive bemoaning and even self-deprecation.

This gets more serious as many tend to compare Korea and Japan, which now claims the Nobel Prize almost every year.

Even without considering the historical rivalry, their frustration is understandable to a degree.

This year alone, two Japanese won the Nobel Prize - one in medicine or physiology and the other in physics - and the island neighbour now has a total of 24 laureates.

All the Japanese winners except three -- two in literature and one in peace - were in science.

This troubles pundits who see the dearth of Korean winners in the fields as proof of gap in the level of science between the two countries.

Some go on to describe the gap in the form of a sports match score.

This year, a Chinese person won the physiology prize, and consequently, the score for science prize winners became "0-1-21."

Headings of articles I came upon over the past week include: "Is football the only thing in which we can beat Japan?," "Why we should envy Japan" and "What are we doing? It's shameful."

This defeatist attitude infects many Koreans, including a ruling party lawmaker who said in a recent parliamentary audit that the science minister should wear "funeral clothes" because in no other fields does Korea lose to Japan so one-sidedly.

The more developed and advanced the country, the more Nobel Prize winners it gets, and there is no doubt that in many respects, Korea needs to enhance its standards in science.

But it is ridiculous for a lawmaker to demand the science minister to take responsibility for the lack of a Nobel Prize winner.

This kind of attitude is sometimes ridiculed by none other than Japanese.

The former Seoul correspondent of a major Japanese newspaper wrote a column recently based on his experience in Korea.

He said that whenever the Japanese receive the Nobel Prizes, Koreans only "keep sighing." Korean journalists, he said, used to ask him how many Japanese won the prizes, and his answer simply silenced them.

Not all Koreans only heave sighs, pound their hearts and become consumed by jealousy toward Japan. POSTECH president Kim Doh Yeon said that it is "undesirable" for a Korean to win the Nobel Prize in science in the near future, because it could bring about an "illusion" about the level of basic sciences in the country, which still has a long way to go.

In a published interview, Kim noted that Korea, which has a short history in scientific studies, must still try to strengthen the base for basic sciences - with patience - and then will Nobel Prizes come naturally.

It was relieving to know that the man who sees his students pass by the empty bust podiums waiting for Korean Nobel laureates almost every day has a different view from many other Koreans, who regard the Nobel Prizes as only a yardstick not only for science but also for national power, and who senselessly cut into the self-pride of this nation.