The reason why no Korean Nobel laureates

I feel sorry for South Korea every year when Nobel Prize is announced. I’ve watched how South Koreans passionately wanting to have Korean Nobel laureates for decades.


The reason why there is no Korean Nobel laureates in science is painfully obvious to me.

In Korean society, there is a typical tendency to have an ideal (for the Korean sentiment or culture) conclusion first and change facts accordingly or ignore facts that contrary to the conclusion. This traits probably came from Korean traditional Neo-Confucian or some similar idea that there is only one perspective is allowed and the contrary views of the narrative is strictly excluded and it is a virtue to tell a lie in order to archive good thing or hide the truth in order to protect the family or community, just like Confucius taught.

There should be only “Black”. “White” should be excluded and “Gray” shouldn’t be existed at all. There is no “What is Gray? Why?” question. Those questions are not allowed. A process does not matter. It can be purchased or copied or fabricated (such as Korean Pakuri culture).

Passion for “why and what”. It’s a quest for the unknown. Those are missing.

What South Koreans have is passion for a prize, that’s all. It just does not work. And just like the Nature puts it “(South Korea) is spending big in the hope of winning a Nobel prize, but it will need more than cash to realize its ambitions.”

The Number of Nobel Prizes for Japan and South Korea Speaks Volumes

The Nobel Prize is intended to be an award that brings together the best of the best, no matter what field they specialize in or what country they call their home. However, in some parts of the globe, the best intentions of the award have been undermined by rifts between neighbouring countries — such is the case with South Korea and Japan.

Earlier this year, a team of Japanese scientists comprised of Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano and Shuji Nakamura were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for having invented an efficient blue LED that could be used as an energy-saving white light source. This marked the sixth year in which the Nobel Prize in Physics had been awarded to at least one Japanese recipient, with Amano, Akasaki and Nakamura the 20th, 21st and 22nd becoming Japanese Nobel laureates respectively.

South Korea, on the other hand, is yet to produce its first Nobel Prize-winning scientist, with Kim Dae-jung, the 2000 Nobel Peace Prize recipient being the only South Korean to be awarded a Nobel of any kind. The complex relationship between Japan and South Korea goes back more than 1500 years, stemming from trade and cultural exchange between Japan and mainland Asia which commonly came through the Korean peninsula — however, over the centuries, the dynamic between the two countries has changed quite dramatically.

In 1965, Japan established diplomatic relations with South Korea in the aftermath of the Korean War and the separation of the Korean territory into North and South. Japan recognized South Korea as the only legitimate government of the peninsula and signed the Treaty on Basic Relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea — a document which was explicitly referenced by Eisaku Sato, the 39th Prime Minister of Japan, in the lecture he gave following his receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1974.

However, the past decade has seen several disputes shake the foundations of the relationship between South Korea and Japan. The longstanding territorial dispute over the Liancourt Rocks rose its head again in 2012 following a visit by South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak, as well as ongoing debate as to Japan’s depiction of its own history and relation to South Korea in government-approved history textbooks.

These events, amongst other ongoing issues, have fostered bad blood between the two nations. A poll carried out by the BBC World Service this year found that 79% of South Koreans surveyed stated that they view Japanese influence negatively, which makes for the biggest negative perception of Japan for any country in the world other than China. This ill-feeling has poured out into a competition between the two as to how many Nobel Prizes each country has managed to accumulate.

When the news of the 2014 Nobel Prize for Physics being awarded to Japanese recipients was announced earlier this year, some social media posts by Japanese users carried the phrase ’19-0′. The ’19’ referred to the number of Japanese scientists who had been bestowed with a Nobel Prize for their work — the ‘0’ therefore being the number of South Korean scientists to accomplish the same feat.

If South Korea wants to produce a significant number of Nobel Prize laureates, it will have to eradicate its culture of fabrication. In 2005, the world was astounded to learn that Seoul National University professor Hwang Woo-suk had published embryonic stem cell research papers based on fake results, but that is by no means the only example of fabrication. One after another, papers based on fabricated research have been published, including papers on pseudo-insulin (2008), increased liquidity of polymers in isolated structures (2010), stem cells (17 papers in 2012), and protein-based immune function (2013). To give an example from a different sphere, Apple has made public Samsung internal documents that state thatiPhone was ‘easy to copy’. Based on this example alone, it would be hard to deny that a culture of copying is fundamental to Korean society.

However, this sort of behaviour isn’t one-sided. A video of a South Korean teacher explaining why his country hasn’t had more success claiming a Nobel Prize in Literature went viral a few years ago; his argument was that the Korean language was superior to all others.

Immediately after a team of three Japanese scientists was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics, Korean Internet users posted many comments that smacked of sour grapes, such as “Korean science and technology is at least as good as Japanese” and “Aren’t the descendants of Paekche brilliant!” Korea’s spiritual culture is based on hierarchy – Koreans are only interested in an assessment of who is number one and who is number two. Korea’s inferiority complex in relation to the Nobel Prize is nothing other than a deeply rooted inferiority complex the Korean people have with relation to Japan.

The back-and-forth between South Korea and Japan regarding the Nobel Prize is symptomatic of a deeper mistrust and growing tensions that show no signs of dispersing. The Nobel Prize should honour great achievements in particular fields by remarkable individual talents – but, as we can see, its global prestige can sometimes be tainted by envy and jealousy, as is the case with South Korea towards Japan at this time.


As many point out, (here, here, here, here) critical thinking and freedom of scholarship and press are suppressed in South Korea especially when it comes to history and education. Koreans must get rid of Korean fantasy. And Hangul is not good for high level stuff.

Imagine kids grow up in that kind of society? dah.


About Toru

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