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A Korean Skeptic’s Report: New Ager-Occupied Territory

Gun-Il Kang

Skeptical Briefs Volume 10.1, March 2000

A deep attachment to tradition and an aspiration to wealth are cherished values of the modern South Korean. As the nations of the world become increasingly interdependent in the emerging information age, the cultural bonds of tradition can be the foundation of stability and resilience in aquickly developing nation like Korea. The desire for economic prosperity is a powerful motive for a massive technological and societal transformation, and Korea is quickly becoming a fully developed industrial nation despite the recent economic setbacks.

However, tradition has also been a detriment to Korean skepticism and scientific literacy. For example, Koreans are born believers in qi (pronounced “chee”) the foundation of traditional Asian philosophy and medicine. In the context of culture and philosophy, belief in qi does not itself constitute scientific illiteracy. There is however a strong, uncritical trust in the powers of traditional medicine based on qi, at the expense of good medical science.

1. Propagandized Medical Science

Out of the admiration of Western affluence, emulation was the obvious starting point, fueled by a patriotic competitive spirit. Because of this, most of the pharmaceuticals currently produced worldwide are also produced in Korea; and for a decade or so, Koreans were surprised by the simultaneous achievement of wealth and health.

The fact that Korea does not itself develop new pharmaceuticals seems to be a natural consequence of competition by emulation. There is current discussion in Korea about progressing to pharmaceutical research and development, but unfortunately, this has heavily focused on the development of unique breakthrough drugs from traditional Korean herbal medicines. The idea is, in effect, to excavate the wisdom of our ancestors to build the foundations of Korean medical and pharmaceutical research.

Needless to say, this attitude has coincided with poor medical science education associated with traditional sectors. Outmoded traditional therapies have been conserved, and education is devoted mostly to memorizing facts in books. This attitude can be compared to the medieval European monks who used to faithfully hand-copy the medical treatises of Galen. Traditional medical and pharmacology students must still memorize antiquated medical doctrines to earn their degrees. No one questions whether these traditional dogmas are valid to teach or learn.

Traditional Korean Medicine (TKM)-acupuncture and herbal therapy-is not very much different from traditional Chinese medicine, in terms of its principles of yin-yang and the five elements theory. If there is anything native in TKM beyond minor modifications, it is the theory of physical constitution formulated by the nineteenth century philosopher and traditional doctor, Je-Ma Lee.

According to Lee’s theory, human beings can be classified into one of four categories according to the size of their lungs, liver, spleen and kidneys. Each category or “form” is specific in its temperament, propensity to disease, suitable diet, and particular herbs for maintaining health and curing disease. Ironically, the great modern promoter of this pseudotheory is Dr. Myung-Bok Lee, former professor of anatomy at the School of Medicine, Seoul National University.1

2. Retrograde Medical Policy

Corruption and a reckless pursuit of in-group interests are deeply ingrained in Korean society from industry to the public sector. Educational institutions are not at all immune to this phenomenon. There are a few who recognize that Korean problems can be cured only by the spirit of science, rationality, objectivity, and honesty.

In Korea, there are two accreditations for medical doctors: the WMD for doctors of Western medicine, and the TMD for doctors of traditional Korean medicine. All doctors are trained for six years. In addition there are Western Medicine Pharmacists (WMP), who are trained for four years.

In 1996 a separate “Traditional Medicine Pharmacists” (TMP) was also established. The creation of the TMP accreditation, circumventing WMPs’ discretion in dispensing traditional drugs, was the result of furious conflicts between TMDs and WMPs beginning in 1993. Both sides staged mass demonstrations and threatened the shutdown of their clinics and pharmacies. Student boycotted classes, and at least two Ministers of Public Health and Welfare were forced to resign after arraignment for their misadministration.

Looking at this conflict, it is clear that its cause was the government’s misleading policy. In the 1960s there was only one traditional medical college. The government increasingly permitted new colleges, beginning with two in 1970s. Korea now boasts eleven such colleges, producing 750 TMDs each year. The new TMDs are now so accepted and influential in the mainstream, that it was inevitable for them to fight to limit the influence of WMPs in the prescription of traditional drugs.

It is truly amazing that in a nation where Western health professionals and modern pharmaceuticals are in ample supply, a policy promoting TKM was adopted. Few seem to realize that the policy caused not only the TMD-WMP conflict, but has also led to serious national health problems.

Few in Korea are aware, even in this day and age, of the fact that acupuncture, folk remedies, and herbs are mostly neither effective nor safe. Amid the propaganda of TKM professionals, the government’s assurance of special consideration, and the public’s uncritical belief, Korea is seeing an unprecedented boom period of acupuncture and herbal remedies. The Korean government even dispatched a special team of dignitaries to China to learn from that nation’s medical policies. Korean policy makers then took the retrograde step of emulating these policies.2

3. The “Scientification” of Pseudoscience?

Korea is in critical condition because traditional medicines are promoted-in addition to official government recognition-by scholars and scientists who regard the defense of TKM as a sign of national pride in Korea’s cultural heritage. They insist that it is an irrefutable science, and even defend it in the name of science.

The following is an editorial from the widely read Korean newspaper, ChosunIlbo. The writer clearly makes no distinction between Western medicine and Western cultural influence.

The government should not overlook the fact that Western medicine and pharmacology is, needless to say, growing in importance with the trend of growing globalization; traditional medicine and pharmacology should also be esteemed. As long as the responsibility for traditional medicine rests on us, and demand for such medical treatment still exists, more vigorous policies should be adopted. One possible way is to establish a traditional medical college at Seoul National University.3

An influential medical historian, Sang-Ik Whang of the School of Medicine, Seoul National University, stresses that science existed prior to the dawn of modern science, although its institutions and methodology were somewhat different from those of modern times. He expanded this idea to say, in effect, that the holistic medical doctrines of past eras, whether Hippocratic humors, Indian Ayurveda, or Chinese qi, are all true sciences.4 He has obviously given full sway to Thomas Kuhn’s relativistic view of science.

There is a paradoxical belief in Korea that although traditional medicine already is true science, TKM nevertheless needs to undergo "scientification.” The goal of scientification is to give scientific validity to traditional medical dogmas like yin-yang and qi force. The Pharmaceutical Society of Korea openly announced studies in this direction, rather than discarding and burying the old supernatural doctrine.

The attempt to find scientific proof for acupuncture is particularly noteworthy, since a principle researcher-Zang-Ho Cho-is also a renowned scientist. In his investigation, he inserted needles into acupuncture points of the foot that are theoretically connected to the eye and the visual centers in the brain through the meridian. He then measured blood flow and oxygen levels on the visual region of the cortex by MRI. It was reported that there was a plus/minus 5 percent change observed with the acupuncture, compared to controls. It seems suspicious, however, that whether the percent change is plus or minus is explained by assuming the influence of an untested tenet of traditional medicine: yin-yang constitutions.5

4. New Age Boosted by 210 Ph.Ds

In 1986, a book entitled New Science Movement, dealing with the thoughts of those who were arbitrarily called “New Age scientists” (including Fritjof Capra, David Bohm, Ilya Prigogine, Roger Sperry, et al.), was published by the New (Age) Science Study Group. This organization is a group of eleven prominent scientists and scholars sponsored by the DaeWoo Cultural Foundation. Although the book generally presented skeptical opinions from a scientific viewpoint on holistic claims, they made a blunder by christening New Age claims as the “New Science,” more or less on equal terms with the achievements of Galileo.6 From then on, New Science has become accepted terminology widely applied to all New Age parasciences.

In 1994, New Agers rose to higher prominence when the Korean Society of Mind (Psychical) Sciences was founded. The founding ceremony opened with a demonstration of a fourteen-year-old girl’s "eyeless vision,” and a declaration to investigate similar paranormal phenomena. The society consists of over 800 members: professors, research scientists, students, and others-including 210 Ph.Ds. One of the society’s projects was to also study the various types of folk medicine and phenomena in three “sections": I Ching in the Traditional Thoughts Section; qi and spirits in the Bio-Qi Energy Section; and clairvoyance and telepathy in the Potential Ability Section.7

It is futile to detail the contents of the Society’s regular symposia: their topics are anything but skeptical inquiry. They have been providing TV stations and newspapers with all sorts of paranormal claims in the name of the New Science. One such claim is that discrete radiation from an ancestor’s remains, if damaged by water vein radiation, would pursue descendants and permanently injure them.8 In spite of this kind of “science,” no one seems to suspect that the Society’s staff, because of their backgrounds, are simply New Agers worshipping parascience.

A board member of the Society, Gun-Woong Bang9 published a book entitled New Science Will Change the World. In this book, he discusses various New Age topics such as qigong, morphic fields, auras and Kirlian photography, homeopathy and water-memory, vibrational therapy, cold fusion, perpetual motion, biological transmutation, Mesmer and subtle energy, teleportation, etc.

The book has been widely read even by young students, becoming a bestseller. Bang was asked to give a talk before the National Assembly Members’ science study group. According to the press report, the chairman of the study group concluded that New Science research should be strongly supported by the government, since the potential of such research promised to change the world economic map. Afterwards, they even held public hearings-the step prior to a government enactment to support New Science research.10

The scientists belonging to the Society received a hefty grant from the government for a feasibility study. They concluded that underlying evidence of pyramid power, music agriculture, and vibrational therapy are based on reasonable science, and that they could be the foundation of working hypotheses for scientific investigation.11

Apparently they have not referred to the numerous articles and papers of skeptics on these very subjects.

5. The Role of Korean Skeptics

With a patriotic attitude toward traditional medicine in the public and wide media coverage, profit-motivated New Agers are thriving and given full respect in Korea. Koreans at large, regardless of educational background are attracted more and more to superstition, and are recoiling more and more from good, solid science and reason. This trend has actually been promoted by influential scholars and government policy-all in the name of science.

A response to the pseudoscience trend in Korean society has only recently been organized. A newly established organization, Korea Pseudo-Science Awareness (KOPSA), promises to be effective. In order to fight back, organization, intelligence and the right tactics will be indispensable. Sympathizers to reason and science will be called on as a group force. But KOPSA also needs advice and assistance from accomplished skeptics abroad.


  1. Dr. Myung-Bok Lee wrote in 1993 a bestselling book entitled If You Know Your Constitution, Your Health Is Guaranteed. He even taught this concept in an educational TV program. His method of reading the constitution is based on the muscle testing of applied kinesiology. No one knows he is simply teaching a sympathetic magic.
  2. The Western versus Traditional dualism of the Chinese medical system is unique but far from ideal. In Japan, traditional doctors were not trained after 1885. When chairman Mao Zedong took over mainland China in 1949, he inevitably and politically emphasized TCM. China, in fact, has made efforts to augment the western system up to the point that about 15 to 20 percent of patients become TCM-dependent (B.L. Beyerstein, and W. Sampson. 1996. Skeptical Inquirer 20(4): 18-26).
  3. The editorial titled Traditional and Western Medicines Should Be Complemented appeared in ChosunIlbo on May 18, 1996. The tone is nothing different from that of most Koreans who regard Western medicines as inroads of Western culture in their territory. Naturally they believe that in Korea something modern and unique should be created corresponding to the Western one. They are not going to accept that science is an universal way of thinking and finding the truth.
  4. Dr. Sang-Ik Whang expressed this view in the book review of Modern Drug Discovery Stories, which appeared in MunwhaIlbo on April 23, 1997. The title of the review was “An Argument Against Determining Statement that Traditional Medicine is Unscientific.” The book, written by me, was simply an account of drug discovery stories but it was stated in the author’s introduction that modern drugs created from the 19th century by applying scientific method to the finding of efficacy and safety are valued different from traditional ones. Open supporters for my views are rarely encountered.
  5. This appeared in JungangIlbo on June 12, 1997. Dr. Zang-Ho Cho presented the result at the National Assembly special guest lecture. Later, it was reported (MunwhaIlbo, March 5, 1998) that the result was published in PNAS-USA (Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 95, 2670-2673). Kyung Hee University informed me that the press expression of yin-yang constitutions was erroneous and yin-yang in the paper simply denotes two separate groups of opposite signals. Additionally, it was reported that the reproducibility of their work had not been tested and proved by other researchers.
  6. The publisher of New Science Movement, Sung-Bom Lee, is also a member of the New Science Study Group and an arduous promoter of various New Age publications, including those of Fritjof Capra and James Lovelock. Strange enough, those New Age books in his New Science Series were found to be mixed with orthodox science books such as Ever Since Darwin by Steven J. Gould and Anatomy of a Scientific Discovery by Jeff Goldberg. In Korea around thirty translated books of new age authors were published and those books have been widely promoted and recognized as the twenty-first century advanced science.
  7. These were found in ChosunIlbo
  8. (October 20, 1994 and May 6, 1997). The Korean Society of Mind Sciences is a legitimate science association registered at Ministry of Science and Technology. President Dr. Choong-Woong Lee of the Society, electronics professor of Seoul National University, expressed his having special interest on telepathy communication (MunwaIlbo, April 16, 1997). There is another new age scholar group called “Future Foreseers.” The key member of the group appeared in the newspaper is Dr. Jun-Sik Choi, professor of religious studies of Ewha Woman’s University. According to the press report (ChosunIlbo, April 29, 1997). Dr. Choi organized an international new science symposium inviting authorities on UFO, cold fusion, superefficient machine breaking the second law of thermodynamics and human special ability.
  9. The article was written by two members including a board member of the Korean Society of Mind Sciences in one of the series of “Water Vein and Health” in ChosunIlbo on August 25, 1996. In another article of the series (September 1, 1996), they cited Rupert Sheldrake’s morphic field and Lyall Watson’s “The Hundredth Monkey Story.”
  10. Dr. Gun-Woong Bang, one the most popular New Age promoters in Korean earned a Ph.D. in materials engineering from Northwestern University, U.S.A. and presently a senior researcher of Korea Research Institute of Standards and Science. He is well versed in Korean philosophy classics. When I contacted him asking for a detailed story of the girl’s eyeless vision, he telefaxed me seven pages of the story including some of his philosophy.
  11. According to ChosunIlbo (July 23, 1997), Rep. Sang-Hee Ri, former minister of Science and Technology invited Dr. Bang to the seminar. Dr. Bang informed me that Rep. Ri is presently less positive and another Rep. Ho-Sun Chung is active enough to organize the public hearing on April 16, 1998. Detailed setting of the hearing was known to be made by Dr. Min-Yong Park, Yonsei University engineering professor. Dr. Park told me that the New Science discussed in the hearing was not specific but the one broadly embracing contents of Dr. Bang’s book New Science Will Change the World. The Naeway Economic Daily (April 16, 1998) reported that the law would direct to the promotion of Ki related researchers and practices including qualification standards of qigong therapists and special (super) ability holders.
  12. Reporting this with a title of “Mysterious Space Energy” (MunwhaIlbo, June 30, 1997), the newspaper inserted a big photograph of pyramid in which sat two researchers including principal investigator Dr. Mun-Cho Chung of Korean Institute of Science and Technology. It is obvious for them to believe as well as pyramidology Backster effect, unnaturalistic vibrational therapy and Robert Jahn’s PK. Although Dr. Chung promised to send their research report on my request, it did not reach me.

Gun-Il Kang

Gun-Il Kang earned his Ph.D. degree from the University of British Columbia, Vancouver. A former pharmaceutical chemistry professor at Sookmyung Women’s University in Korea, he wrote ten science related books.