South Korea Biological and Toxin Weapons

South Korea signed the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC) on 10 April 1972. North Korea acceded to the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) in 1987. According to North Korea, South Korea was covertly developing a BW arsenal. No one else is of this view. North Korea itself "began to emphasize an offensive BW program during the early 1960s... and probably has the ability to produce limited quantities of traditional infectious BW agents or toxins" according to the United States Government.

South Korea has an extensive biological engineering community which could serve as ths basis for a biological weapons program, though there is neither evidence nor suggestion of such a connection. South Korea is one of Asia's top pharmaceutical markets and is currently the 10th largest market in the world. By 2008 over 600 Korean pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies are developing new drug candidates and technologies. Research-intensive small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) play a crucial role in the advancement of the biotechnology industry.

Until its ugly end, 2005 had been a pretty good year for South Korea's fledgling biotech industry. The government was pouring money into biomedical research, and the Kosdaq stock market brought in changes that made it easier for biotechnology companies to go public. The upsurge in the Kosdaq stock exchange and South Korea's nascent biotech industry suddenly crashed in December 2005 when the magnitude of the scandal involving the research of Woo Suk Hwang, a stem-cell biologist at Seoul National University, became apparent.

With the creation of the World Stem Cell Hub, a project inaugurated officially by South Korean president Roh Moo-hyun in October 2005, embryonic stem (ES) cell pioneer Hwang Woo-Suk had pulled off an astonishing feat. The goal of the World Stem Cell Hub was to ensure South Korean leadership in stem cell research and its medical applications for years to come. A few months later came confirmation that all of the 11 claimed cell lines were crude fakes and that Hwang committed gross ethical violations in securing egg donations. South Korea's ambitious stem cell research program was in tatters.

The development of the biotechnology industry calls for the research output of universities and academic institutes to be identified, patented, and commercialized into successful products and technologies. Commercialization of research requires strong links between the industrial and academic world enabling transfer of knowledge, technology, and human resources. South Korea has not had a history of such interaction, primarily because researchers valued positions in universities and research labs more than those in industry.

Government initiatives such as introducing favorable policies and promoting start-ups with support for R&D activities have placed the South Korean biotechnology industry among the fastest growing biotech hubs. Having identified this industry as a significant driver of future economic growth, the South Korean Government has committed substantial resources to its development and implemented various programs such as Biotech 2000 and Vision 2025.

In the early 1990s South Korea announced ambitious goals to build, more or less from scratch, an indigenous biotech industry. In 1994, the South Korean government launched an audacious plan, termed Biotech 2000, under which the government and industry pledged to spend US $18 billion (15.5 trillion won) over a 14-year period on biotech R&D. An offshoot of South Korea's 'Highly Advanced Nation' development agenda, the program aimed to make South Korea into one of the seven leading biotech nations by 2007, a date that was later pushed back to 2010.

The research infrastructure was also strengthened with numerous institutions set up such as Korea Research Institute for Biosciences and Biotechnology (KRIBB), and Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST). Several other government-aided academic institutions are carrying out work in basic research and various fields of biotechnology.

With the Korean government's encouragement, the Korean biotech pharmaceutical industry is striving to invest more in R&D (currently only 4-5 percent based on sales revenue) and diversify from the production of generics and antibiotics. This trend presents excellent opportunities for U.S. biotech firms to participate in Korea's strategic biotech sector. Although Korea's pharmaceutical industry is competitive in terms of chemical synthesizing technologies, it is much less competitive in drug screening, safety evaluation and clinical trials. Korean companies are pursuing strategic alliances with multinational firms to finance R&D for new products or for cross-licensing of existing technologies. Industry experts predict that the U.S. market share will increase as more U.S. biotechnology-based products become commercially available over the next few years.

The Korean market, the 12th largest pharmaceutical market in the world, was valued at USD 7.7 billion in 2005. According to industry sources, Korean market demand for pharmaceuticals is estimated to have grown by 11 percent in 2006 to reach USD 8.5 billion and is forecast to grow at an average annual rate of 10 percent over the next few years since the need for medical treatment for senior citizens is rapidly increasing.

In the mid-1990s, South Korean media began reporting that, over the past two years, the Republic of Korea (ROK) Government and South Korean companies were engaging in systematic efforts to obtain foreign proprietary technology through indirect methods. Faced with a decline in the competitiveness of its products, the high cost of buying foreign technology, and the difficulty of developing new technology through its own resources, South Korea reportedly contrived a host of oblique means to access the technological secrets of advanced countries.

A quasi-official ROK industrial organization was to work with South Korean biotechnology companies to establish a technology-transfer facility in San Diego. The South Korean Government would subsidize the new center, which would facilitate "networking" with local researchers. The Federation of Korean Industries (FKI), which is South Korea's largest industrial organization and serves as an intermediary between ROK companies and government policy makers, proposed in late October 2001 that a "Korea Bio Valley" be set up near San Diego to serve as a focal point for entry of ROK products into the US market and to facilitate acquisition of US biotechnology. FKI's plan called for joint participation by large ROK companies, pharmaceutical makers, and biotech startups in establishing this "bridgehead" into the US "hub" of the life sciences industry.

Bio Valley would support 10 to 15 ROK companies in the Carlsbad district of San Diego. The ROK Government reportedly would buy buildings and other infrastructure and lease them to Korean companies or make them available at no cost. Ten billion won of the 15-billion won budget would be covered by public subscriptions with the remainder provided as a government subsidy. FKI would work with the Korea Bioventure Association, South Korea's major biotech industrial group, to complete the complex by 2001. However, the plans to establish the "Korea Bo-Park" were hit by delays over budget problems. The Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Energy had yet to set aside a budget for the project. Also, Korean companies and bio-venture firms, which are to help finance the project, were suffering financial difficulties. The plan is currently in limbo.

Bio Valley was part of a larger FKI proposal titled "A Plan for Developing the Biotech Industry (October 2001)" aimed at raising the technology level of domestic biotech firms. According to a copy of the plan posted to FKI's Web site, the main purpose of the US complex is "to grasp in real time the latest advances in biotechnology and trends in the biotech industry." The plan states that Korea's "R&D capability will be improved by making use of top-notch overseas research personnel and networking with them." A secondary goal is noted as promoting "with a minimum investment, the introduction of ROK biotech products into the United States and adjacent countries."

Seoul's move to establish a high-tech "liaison center" in the heartland of the US biotech industry parallelled its successful efforts noted above to comb Silicon Valley for information technology, a field where South Korea now enjoys some commanding leads. An example of this approach is the socalled "Information and Communications Venture Support Center" in San Jose, identified in South Korean press reports as an information technology-transfer facility sponsored by the ROK Government.




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