Why no Korean Nobel laureates?

Until now, 790 Nobel Prizes, undoubtedly one of the world’s most admired honors, have been awarded to people in 50 countries. Within Asia, 21 laureates came from Japan, five from China, and even seven from India, whose GDP per capita is only $1,600. The U.S. is at the top with 320 Nobel Prize winners, which is about 40 percent of all Nobel Prizes awarded. Korea, on the other hand, has had no such achievements in the field of scholarship, aside from the former President Kim Dae-jung’s Nobel Peace Prize. It is rather an embarrassing lack of achievement for this economic powerhouse. Why is there such a lack?

The following is a summary gathered from various experts in their fields. First, the research and development (R&D) budget allocated by the government is too little. The U.S. has the largest total R&D budget, followed by China, but Korea’s R&D budget ratio against GDP is greater. We spend about 4 percent of GDP on R&D, which is only second to Israel, and our R&D ratio is almost twice that of the U.S. Therefore, this assertion is essentially false.

Second, government policies have hindered innovation in R&D. Fostering innovation is an essential factor in producing achievements worthy of the Nobel Prize, but the emphasis in short-term research that produces immediate results prompts researchers to select low-risk R&D topics. The government’s interest is only focused on research achievements during the budgeting season, and if no results appear in the three-year frame, the budget is cut and projects dissolved ― this is rather persuasive reasoning.

Third, the choice of R&D topics chosen for government funding is based on personal networking, rather than objective evaluation of the topics. This is partially true, but I believe the problems also lie with the professors themselves. The Nobel Prize laureate in physics, Peter Gruenberg, professed that the most important factor in achieving the prize has everything to do with how long one can enjoy and focus on the research. I wonder how many of our researchers are keen on their research alone.

The term “polifessor” is widely known in Korea. It is a hybrid word derived from “politics” and “professor” to describe academics whose interests are directed to politics rather than scholastic achievements through research and teaching. If their core profession ― research and teaching ― is left on the back burner, what will come out of the universities and scholarships in Korea?

I believe it is right for the academics to leave their university posts behind for the younger colleagues to have proper chances for scholarship when they pursue interests outside the ivory tower. Many “polifessors” have already lost the passion for scholarship and teaching. It is certainly not advisable to sustain the current system that allows these “polifessors” the opportunity to come back to academia if things go wrong in the political realm. If one chooses to involve themselves in politics, one should be resolutely determined to “burn the bridge” that one just crossed for “no return,” just as Ahn Cheol-soo resigned from his post at Seoul National University before declaring his entrance into politics.

In the case of the U.S., the President often offers core government posts to academics, but many reject the offer. Such academics are determined, well-respected scholars who are dedicated to scholarship and scholarship alone. It is not difficult to see academics working night and day in pursuit of academic goals, and it is no coincidence that their achievements are often awarded with the highest honor ― a reason that allowed the greatest share of the Nobel Prizes to be awarded to American scholars.

If academics in Korea’s higher education are more interested in politics and wealth, the Nobel Prize is still a distant future. Unless significant improvements are made in the reality of Korean universities where “polifessors” are prevalent, Nobel laureates may be hard to find here in Korea for another couple of decades.

UN Security Council should act

Europe is suffering from an immense headache with the influx of refugees from the Middle East and Africa. The European countries that turn away these refugees are portrayed as inhumane, with the media reporting tragic stories of the refugees. The world watches with heartache as tens of thousands of impoverished refugees attempt to cross the borders of Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary and even Austria, but at the same time, the European nations face a dilemma as their choices to block the refugees comes down to their own economic circumstances.

There is also the demand for other Muslim countries, including oil-rich Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, UAE, and Iran, along with neighboring countries like Russia and Turkey, to join in the efforts to accommodate the refugees. Although recent EU meetings resulted in a measure to share refugees among the EU countries through imposing quotas, it is questionable whether such a policy can be successfully implemented.

A worldwide audience is demanding that the UN lead the efforts to protect the refugees at this critical time. The UN Security Council has a 7.5 billion-dollar annual Peace Keeping Fund (the US funds 29% of it) to operate an 82,000-person military in 15 countries.

The demand is to relocate the forces to lead in solving the refugee question. If the UN does not act quickly by using a percentage of this budget, something more massive with global consequences may arrive; the fact that the UN is unresponsive to this demand aggravates the situation. Now is the time for the five permanent member countries (US, China, Russia, France, UK) and ten member countries of the Security Council to come together to reach a resolution ― they should not just sit back and watch one of the greatest human tragedies in history unfold. To this end, think tanks in the U.S. came to two recommendations as fundamental resolutions: one, mobilize UN forces to defeat ISIS, recapture Syria and let the refugees return to their homeland, or two, restore peace to at least half of Syria under UN mediation and have the refugees return home under the surveillance of UN forces. I believe that returning the refugees to their homeland is the optimal solution for now. If Syria is divided in half, with one side occupied by ISIS terrorists, the UN can maintain peace at the border.

During Abe’s April address to a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress, there was a discussion between Abe and Obama on Japan becoming a member of the UN Security Council. For the UN Security Council to be more politically effective, it is advisable for Germany to have a seat along with Japan, increasing the member countries to seven from the current five. Last year’s contribution to the Peace Keeping Fund was led by the US at 29%, followed by Japan at 11%, Germany at fourth with 7%, China at sixth with 6.6% and Russia at eighth with a meager 3.8%. It is contradictory for Russia, which only contributed a little over 3%, to exercise the same veto power as the US, whose level of contribution far exceeds that of Russia’s. If the member countries are increased to seven, China and Russia’s veto power will be comparatively weakened, especially on matters relevant to North Korea, as five countries are bound to be favorable to South Korea while two (China and Russia) are likely to exercise an “Abstain” vote rather than vote “No.” In this seven-member dynamic, we can try to solve North Korea’s nuclear problem through the UN Security Council and further make steps towards a peaceful reunification of two Koreas, starting with economic cooperation under the UN surveillance.

Unification of the Korean peninsula still depends on the five permanent member countries of the UN Security Council, due to their veto power. With a nuclear deal with Iran soon to pass in the US Congress, the world’s eyes will be focused on North Korea as the only nuclear weapon state. It will be an opportune time to work toward a peaceful reunification by borrowing the power of the UN Security Council. Once reunification is within sight, we are bound to become flooded with North Korean refugees, like the movements we’ve seen from the Middle Eastern refugees. Korea needs money desperately to accommodate them. I have repeatedly argued for the government to issue Reunification Bonds, similar to Franklin Roosevelt’s War Bonds, which helped finance World War II and rebuild the US in the aftermath.