Competing Ambitions Clash
Prior to, and simultaneous with the introduction of “Atoms for Peace,” external parties brought radioisotopes to the Korean peninsula bearing a message of goodwill. In the war’s aftermath, medical relief work formed a significant part of rehabilitation that involved the participation of multiple nations. In the case of what became the National Medical Center (NMC), three nations—Sweden, Norway, and Denmark—formed a consortium, collectively gathered under the label “Scandinavian Project.”Footnote 4 Denmark and Norway undertook medical assistance during the war, with Norway providing NORMASH (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital) units, and with Denmark docking a hospital ship, the Jutlandia, off the coast of Busan. The NMC project offered a chance to continue this wartime relief, now transitioning to postwar rebuilding. Other European nations participated in similar projects, with the West Germans operating a Red Cross hospital, thereby reinforcing the image of South Korea as a showcase development work (Hong 2015: see Chapter Three, “Mission Impossible,”: 83–109).
Taking the site of the Seoul City Hospital, the Scandinavian consortium sought to refurbish its physical facilities and in the process recast the location as the “National Medical Center.” In its design, the organizers envisioned a teaching hospital equipped with the latest equipment and practices from Europe (The National Medical Center in Korea 1971). Here is where radioisotopes entered, as a radiotherapy unit would be based within the hospital, offering the latest technology through a specialist form of cancer treatment. As the hospital and its programs existed under the aegis of a United Nations project (UNKRA, or United Nations Korea Reconstruction Agency), there was a lengthy period of discussion (1954–1958) concerning the contractual relationship, as well as the transport and handling of such sensitive materials. Priority represents less of an issue here (that is, which party was first in providing these materials), and rather, we must recognize that concerns surrounding radiation were already being negotiated in settings other than those under the domain of AERI: the emerging nuclear program did not hold an exclusive claim.
Following the war, the mid-1950s offered a diversity of sources through which such materials might arrive, and the regulations and expectations for their handling were by no means consistent. Prior to AERI (1959), South Korea had established its OAE (Office of Atomic Energy, 1956), which fell under the Ministry of Education (MOE). In turn, AERI came under OAE’s purview (MOE > OAE > AERI), meaning that the reactor site and its ambitions ultimately yielded to educational needs and a corresponding set of national goals (Kim 2012). Within this hierarchy, OAE held the power to grant or deny access to Korean scientists, as well as to provide funding and critical resources in a recovering nation. Not surprisingly, there was heated competition, and the ability to demonstrate expertise became the deciding factor in questions of influence and funding. In other words, those Koreans with prior experience, or those who had support networks to advance their claims, were more likely to succeed. Initially, this meant a hierarchy based upon seniority, dominated by those with previous Japanese training.
When foreign experts arrived in the mid 1950s, their advice tended to start from the post-war, ignoring this previous history. When the IAEA offered its assessment of the South Korean program, its team noted a lack of expertise with respect to the transport and handling of the materials it planned to distribute (IAEA 1960).Footnote 5 This report anticipated the visit of a mobile laboratory (Spring 1960), and therefore offered a broad assessment in preparation for its arrival (IAEA 1960). This characterization should not be surprising, given the relatively small size of the Korean scientific community, and the added complications of a colonial legacy, followed by circumstances of national division (1948) and the Korean War (1950–1953). With a TRIGA Mark II reactor based at the engineering campus of Seoul National University set to go critical, IAEA advised that a tentative set of policies on radioactive materials be designed as a provisional measure, noting that the Korean authorities had yet to issue any regulations of their own.Footnote 6 This advice came in the context of the university’s postwar recovery (1954–1960), which was ongoing, and involved numerous international partnerships, collectively aimed at rebuilding the post-colonial nation. The IAEA was more than willing to engage in this kind of outreach, going so far as to recommend the services of a health physics officer, given the absence of such a figure in the Korean context (IAEA 1960).
As with other post-colonial nations, South Korea started sending its students abroad for nuclear training, in this case, as early as 1955. When IAEA composed its report, therefore, it was safe to assume that there were students whose education was “in progress” for many of the areas deemed a necessity, even as they had yet to return home. During the site selection and construction phases (1957–1959), University of Michigan representatives brought in George Hoyt Whipple as a consultant, with a Rochester specialist aiding in the design of a health physics component for the nascent program.Footnote 7 This project consisted of basic safeguards, such as the monitoring of dose levels through badges, the calibration of the instruments to detect and measure radiation levels, and the corresponding monitoring of levels throughout the facility. While these issues were concerns in 1959, the program proceeded at an incremental pace, so the issue was expressed as more of a long-term problem, rather than as an immediate one.
Collaboration with experts like Whipple while waiting for Koreans to finish their studies and return was not the only way to proceed; and in fact, an alternative approach formed a significant part of the response. A number of Koreans who had already gone abroad held positions in the United States and Europe, and it was possible to regard these individuals as forming an imagined collective. In the following decade, the Korean government would aggressively recruit such individuals to return home, offering higher salaries as an incentive. They might participate in a ROK project as Koreans, in other words, without desiring to return home, and they might remain secure in their status as expatriate experts for the moment. Joon Taik Han was one such individual, completing a degree in radiobiology at University of Kansas, and thus possessing skills of great value for the domestic context (Han 1958). Han did the majority of his publishing and academic work in English, but was given a consulting role with AERI in the late 1950s (AERI 1969). Han, and others like him, formed part of a transitional solution and represented a community that mediated between overseas Koreans and those based at home, illustrating the larger spectrum of possibilities for scientists as transnational migrants.
This observation holds true as well for international collaborators based in Seoul, especially during the period of reconstruction (1954–1960) during the later years of President Syngman Rhee (1948–1960). Medical and relief work brought in any number of international partners following the Korean War, and in some cases, the projects (and researchers) stayed on until the mid or late 1960s. This strategy proved to be of benefit to work with radioisotopes, where such relationships helped a great deal in easing concerns over a lack of experience. As mentioned previously, the National Medical Center, which was the product of a relationship between Seoul and its three Scandinavian partners, was identified by IAEA as the possible site for a program in radiation medicine, one that would take place through collaborative channels (IAEA 1960). Specifically, IAEA conceived of placing a radiotherapy department in the NMC, with a joint collaboration taking place between the hospital (under the auspices of the Scandinavian Medical Board), the OAE (Office of Atomic Energy), and the South Korean government.Footnote 8
Such a collaborative arrangement was possible because South Korea was very much in transition. It needed the assistance of international institutions to make claims to legitimacy, and moreover, to continue to recover materially from the recent period of devastation. For medicine, IAEA envisioned placing a radiotherapy section at the NMC, with some thoughts towards an incremental transition to Korean control. In fact, this pattern roughly follows the trajectory of the NMC as a hospital, with Korean control of the facility coming at some point in the late 1960s (1968), although not without contestation (The National Medical Center in Korea 1971). At the same time, there was also a small amount of research activity with radioisotopes at the Seoul National University College of Medicine in the areas of physiology and pharmacology (IAEA 1960: 18).
From this description, it should be clear that Korean scientific activities were highly dispersed, rather than centralized, and tied to the preferences of individual researchers, rather than coordinated. This characterization has its roots in Japanese colonialism, which did not favor the interests of the colony, especially in terms of training Koreans, and in the unusual circumstances underlying the formation of Seoul National University, which lacked a central campus until 1975. Even in 1959, more than a decade after the university’s inception (1946), a foreign partner seeking to establish the foundations of a new program or specialty might easily encounter multiple recipient institutions as candidates.
It is possible to make a few baseline generalizations about the nascent Korean program. First, medicine and agriculture quickly emerged as priorities, much more so than energy or any comparable research agenda. Second, the issue of creating standard practices and metrics (specifically for the handling and processing of radioactive materials) was addressed almost entirely through cooperation with international partners, many of whom had arrived as part of relief missions that were not necessarily tied to nuclear science. In some cases, there was no set policy in the home countries of the experts, but they did not necessarily inform the Koreans of this fact. The unusual circumstances of post-Korean War recovery meant that any number of foreign experts were now based in Seoul for a wide variety of projects, allowing the IAEA’s mission to be tied to facilities such as the National Medical Center (The National Medical Center in Korea 1971). This approach was intended as a temporary solution, until a sufficient number of Korean trainees could return home. Third, a strict binary model of home versus abroad for Korean students and scientists does not capture the complex dynamics of the patterns of migration (and personal identity), as we have seen.Footnote 9 In particular, graduate students completing degrees overseas might elect to take an intermediate position along a much broader spectrum, consulting on projects in Korea while maintaining careers abroad. These individuals often served as valuable links to strengthen international networks.