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Why Science is Golden for South Korea

The Republic of Korea, better known as South Korea, and its communist neighbour North Korea (the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea), were created from the Cold War power struggle following the end of WWII, when China and the Soviet Union disputed control of the Korean peninsula with the West. Since the 1950-1953 war between the two Koreas, the frontier between them has remained the most militarized in the world.
While North Korea today is largely impoverished, South Korea is one of south-east Asia’s major powers, and a major world economy. It is the world’s premier shipbuilder, and a leading producer and exporter of electronic goods, automobiles, petrochemicals and steel. Its GDP in 2007 was USD950 billion, ranking it 10th highest worldwide. The affluent home consumer market, avid of cutting-edge technological goods, fuels a vibrant and innovative manufacturing base.
South Korea was established on an authoritarian model of society common to several other south-east Asian countries; strong and direct links between state and industry– involving substantial credit opportunities and selective supplementary aid to family-owned conglomerates (like the Samsung or Hyundai groups), import restrictions, strong state encouragement for investment savings, and subsidized imports of raw materials.
Economic advancement was finally met with democratic political reforms in 1987, when a multi-party system was introduced. But 10 years later, an economic crisis was triggered by largely unrestricted bank lending, precipitating a USD58 billion bail-out by the International Monetary Fund. The 1997 crisis was partly due to the dependence of South Korea’s economy on just a few key industries. Since then, the watchword has been diversification, and the government has vigorously encouraged the development of a broad range of high-tech activities and increased funding of scientific research.
The country’s long-term economic ambitions are now solidly anchored in a range of state-driven scientific R&D programs, and are generously funded by both the private and public sectors. A major part of South Korea’s scientific development strategy was the creation in 1999 of the “21st Century Frontier R&D program”, launched as part of a national plan called the “Long-term Vision for Science and Technology Development Toward 2025.” It involves 23 projects aimed, over a 10-year period, at significantly developing core technologies that hold commercial potential, including nanotechnology, space technology and bioscience. Each of these projects benefits from funds of at least USD1 million.


© Courtesy of the Korean Embassy in France

Chum-sung-dae (astronomical observatory) from the Shilla period, 8th century AD.

A second, parallel plan was introduced by the government in 2003, which identified ten “growth engine industries for the future”, ranging from biomedicine to next-generation semiconductors and intelligent robots. The core technologies upon which these industries depend were allocated a share of up to 50% of total public R&D investment.
Today the country is back on a strong financial footing and the future looks bright for this ambitious Asian country; in a worldwide comparison, the proportion of its GDP spent on R&D–at around 3%–is second only to Japan, and ahead of the US, Germany and France. Indeed, South Korea’s R&D structure is very similar to the Japanese model, but with even more reliance on private investment. In 2007, this accounted for 80% of total R&D spending against 75% in Japan. Last year, South Korea’s total investment in R&D was USD28.5 billion.
South Korea is particularly impressive in the domain of patents. In the 10 years to 2004, the number of registered patents tripled. In 2007, South Koreans registered 7061 patents, placing it fourth-highest worldwide (behind the US, Japan and Germany but ahead of France, the UK and China). In terms of patents by total population, South Korea is in 2nd position, and for patents by GDP, it is in 1st place.
The priorities currently identified by the government for scientific and technological research are the fields of biotechnology, healthcare, engineering sciences, new materials, aerospace, nuclear energy, oceanology, and advanced technologies. Fundamental research has recently also received a funding boost, to now reach a quarter of all public spending on R&D, aimed at improving the country’s poor showing in terms of scientific output measured against economic strength. In 2006, scientists had 32,621 publications in major international magazines, versus 67,620 from France, 93,371 from Japan and 98,689 from Germany. The fruits of this investment are already apparent; the volume of scientific publications by South Korean researchers is now progressing faster than in any other industrialized nation, although still slower than in China and India.
South Korea’s scientific publications emanate from a community of 200,000 researchers spread out among the country’s 224 universities (of which 178 are privately-managed), some 100 university-affiliated science and engineering research centers, 30 independent, publicly-funded research centers and 12 others under private management. The CNRS is present in about half of all France-South Korea international publications, and this proportion is steadily increasing. The CNRS has developed most of its partnerships with South Korea in physics, ahead of chemistry and materials science. Following a visit to South Korea in 2007 by a CNRS delegation led by its president Catherine Bréchignac, the country was identified as a major future partner for collaboration. This March, two follow-up agreements were signed, including the establishment of the France-Korea Particle Physics Laboratory (FK-PPL), which is the second CNRS-Korea International Associated Laboratory (LIA) and which is a collaboration with the Korea Institute of Science and Technology Information (KISTI).
The first LIA, the Center for Photonics & Nanostructures (CPN), was set up in 2006, involving the Korea Institute of Science and Technology (KIST) in Seoul, the CNRS, France’s Joseph Fourier University in Grenoble and the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris.
The CNRS currently has working agreements with two major organizations funding research, namely the Korea Science and Engineering Foundation (KOSEF), and the Korea Research Foundation (KRF). The CNRS-KOSEF agreement involves several collaborative projects every year in fields where South Korea plays a significant role. Current collaborations concern engineering sciences, materials science, physics and chemistry. These joint projects involve an exchange of researchers, and the organization of bilateral conferences. The CNRS and KRF agreement centers on collaboration in human and social sciences. A new four-year agreement was signed in March this year, allowing for an extension of cooperation in all fields of research and for the possibility of establishing PICS (International Scientific Cooperation Project) and LIA programs.Several other more recent partnership agreements established a structure for future cooperation. These include a broad collaboration agreement with the Korean Research Institute of Bioscience and Biotechnology (KRIBB) and a partnership with the Institut Pasteur Korea (IPK), both signed in 2005.
Further collaboration with the prestigious Seoul National University, in human sciences and fundamental sciences, was discussed this March, which will lead to a memorandum of understanding in the near future.

Graham Tearse


> 48 million inhabitants.
> USD19,800 per capita GDP in 2007.
> USD950 billion total GDP in 2007).
> 224 universities, of which 174 are private.
> USD28.5 billion total investment in R&D in 2007.
> 5.2% of public spending allocated to R&D in 2005.
> 32,621 scientific publications in 2006.
> 138 CNRS missions to South Korea in 2006.

Contacts :

Gwang-Hi Jeung
Deputy Director (Asia-Pacific), CNRS-DRI.
Monique Benoît
Natacha Aveline
Head of CNRS office in Tokyo.


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