‘King Of Clones’ Explained: Who Is Hwang Woo-Suk? Where Is He Now?


King of Clones is a new documentary film on Netflix that intrigues with the deeper questions of scientific research and controversy. The film covers South Korean medical researcher Hwang Woo-suk, who was once hailed as the pride of the nation due to his remarkable advancements in the field of cloning and stem cell research but then had an ultimate fall from grace. With a runtime of about 90 minutes, King of Clones is crisp and provocative, raising questions about the tussle between science and ethics and making one wonder whether the two can ever coexist.

Who Is Hwang Woo-Suk?

Born in 1953 in the Chungcheong province of South Korea, Hwang Woo-suk completed all his education in the country to then become a professor of biotechnology in the country. The prestigious Seoul National University became Woo-suk’s professional space, where the man continued to teach and conduct research at the same time. The subject of theriogenology, or the study of veterinary reproductive medicine, also became close to him. Finally, the study of cloning and stem cell research became fields in which Hwang Woo-suk completely immersed himself, and it was through these that he got public recognition.

Hwang Woo-suk’s first major introduction to the media and public world came in 1995 when the man successfully cloned a dairy calf. News of this broke all over South Korean media because of the sheer potential such a scientific breakthrough could achieve for the country. With the dairy industry being a major part of the economy and the high prices of good dairy cows and calves, cloning could make everything easier. Even the South Korean President at the time, Kim Dae-Jung, invited Hwang Woo-suk and met with him, in an extremely rare event, as the President of the country never meets with normal civilians or even distinguished scientists. After getting public attention as an expert in cloning and veterinary experimentation, which also started to bring in funding for him, Woo-suk very publicly stated that he wanted to clone a Korean Tiger. An extremely rare and endangered animal at the time (which has now sadly gone extinct), the Korean Tiger (or the Siberian Tiger) also symbolized power for the nation, and Woo-suk wanted to work on it for this very matter of national pride. Woo-suk wanted to clone a Korean Tiger as a symbol of unity between the broken nations of North and South Korea and started to experiment on pigs, cows, and domestic cats around the year 2000. However, the experiment ultimately did not go as expected, and the project had to be stopped sometime later.

Despite the failure in this regard, Woo-suk once again made a name for himself and his country, this time on a larger scale, by achieving something that had not yet been done before. While experiments on cloning had been going on in many countries around the world by this time, and animals like sheep and cows had been successfully cloned, no such success had been achieved with dogs yet. With his team at the Seoul National University, Woo-suk created the first cloned dog, an Afghan hound puppy, in 2005, and it was named Snuppy. With this major breakthrough, the reputation of Hwang Woo-suk as an absolute master in cloning and veterinary science spread all over the world. Along with receiving money and opportunities from the Korean government to conduct research and experiments, the man was also sought after internationally.

King of Clones also presents the astounding record of a prestigious dark-skinned and strong-built camel in the UAE named Mabrukan, which was owned by the ruling family and was considered a matter of pride. One of the veterinarians looking after the animal at the time states that Mabrukan had cost five million US dollars when he was bought, and some of the neighboring countries in the Middle East apparently offered about 20 million US dollars to buy him off. Therefore, it was a matter of great loss when Mabrukan died one day, and only some of its organs were stored in the hopes that they could be cloned someday in the future. After Hwang Woo-suk’s credibility in cloning was proven through the dairy calf and then Snuppy, the man was hired by the UAE government to visit the country and make a clone of Mabrukan. Finally, after eleven years of the death of the majestic animal, eleven clones of it were born with the help of Woo-suk’s expertise, and this further added another feather to his illustrious cap.

While the cloning of animals did help with mostly economic matters and also pride and prestige, things took a completely different turn when Woo-suk and his team announced that they had started research on human cloning. In early 2004, news broke that the South Koreans were able to successfully clone 30 human embryos, which was an immediately praised effort as human cloning could be used in making regenerative medicine. Hwang Woo-suk started to receive even more funding and praise, as he was now considered the ideal icon in South Korea because of the work that he was gradually doing. While there were minor levels of protest, some owing to the personal belief that human embryos are, in essence, human lives and should not, therefore, be experimented with, there were thousands more who gathered to provide support to the researcher. As one of the commentators in King of Clones states, Hwang Woo-suk’s popularity in South Korea at the time would be the equivalent of the current-day popularity of BTS and Son Heung-Min, combined and then grown a few times over.

The research that Woo-suk started could be brought together with stem cell research and lead to brilliant regenerative medicines that could theoretically help all people with any physical deformity or disease. Woo-suk did not shy away from making these claims to the media and the public either, and his image did grow into that of an almost miraculous healer who was promising extraordinary remedies through science. South Korea even launched a commemorative stamp in which a person in a wheelchair was seen to stand up and run on their feet, as promised by Hwang Woo-suk. As another commentator draws a link between Woo-suk’s research and politics, it is reminded that South Korea was going through a transitional phase at the time, from a developing country to becoming a developed country. Therefore, such revolutionary research would place the country at the top of the list of praises and would be a major flexing of technological advancement to the rest of the world, and Woo-suk was thus supported even more by the government. But never could anyone imagine that there was actually a fall from grace waiting for Woo-suk only some time away.

What Led To Hwang Woo-Suk’s Fall From Grace?

Along with Hwang Woo-suk’s rise to fame, there had also been some criticism along the way, which he did not pay much attention to. Most of this early criticism was with regard to how ethical the practice of cloning was, as many considered it an unnatural matter that went against the normalcy of nature, while others saw it as an abomination against God. Because of the subjective nature of such criticisms, Woo-suk could easily brush past them, stating the important and sometimes cruel nature of science, which does involve hurting or exploiting other life forms for the sake of knowledge. But the criticism gradually started to change after his research on human cloning began, and the very first question that was raised in the minds of his critics was about where he was getting the human eggs to research on.

Woo-suk publicly claimed that his team had found a group of sixteen women who were voluntarily willing to go through the strenuous process of ovarian hyperstimulation in order to help with the research. Through this process of hyperstimulation, these women were essentially being used as harvesters to get hold of human eggs for research. The claims of Woo-suk were later found to be false in the sense that although the women had voluntarily agreed to the process, some of them were actually students and researchers at the medical facility as well. Therefore, their voluntary service could have very well been coerced and manipulated into agreements since they were all workers at the place and could have feared losing their jobs or could have been wanting to please the senior researchers for professional and academic betterment. The report of this, which was published in a rival journal, did not really make much noise, and it was hailed as an article intended to damage the noble work of Hwang Woo-suk.

But later on, with the help of a former research assistant and a Korean investigative journalism TV program named “PD Note,” much more grim details about Woo-suk’s malpractices were found. It was discovered that the man and his team could not always rely on the apparent voluntary donors for the egg cells and had gotten involved in the unethical practice of buying human egg cells. An infertility clinic in the country had been regularly selling egg cells to Woo-suk’s laboratory, and such trade was then carried out over the Internet as well. One of the women who had earlier donated her eggs to the cause also admitted that she had later sold her egg cells, which were then used for the research again.

While this malpractice was already damning enough, more investigation into Woo-suk’s research revealed that the man had been lying about other things as well. He would often manipulate numbers in his published research papers in order to prove how effective and successful his stem cell research was. Photographs and other documents provided as proof were also fabricated and false, created to support the cause of his research. The final blow came when it was also found out that Hwang Woo-suk’s claim of having created eleven cell lines through cloning was absolutely false, and the man and his team had only successfully created just two cell lines. While earlier criticisms and doubts had been wavered off by many Korean citizens as well, who had believed in the noble intent of the researcher, this proof of excessive lying led to a complete fall from grace for the man who was being considered the top scientist in the country.

Where Is Hwang Woo-Suk Now?

Despite these gross malpractices in scientific research, such acts of scientific duping are not really punishable by law, and so Hwang Woo-suk continues to work in the same field of cloning. The man who appears and speaks throughout King of Clones acknowledges the mistakes he had made and expresses his heartfelt apology for them to the citizens of his country. But then, Woo-suk also claims that he would probably do the same thing in a different life, for the bounds of ethics and morality cannot ever contain scientific curiosity and research. After the various revelations of his malpractices, Woo-suk was charged with fraud, embezzlement, and violation of bioethical laws, but the charge of fraudulence was later dropped. The man was given a suspended prison sentence of two years, of which six months were also reduced later on. Woo-suk continued to work in the same field for companies in the UAE and in South Korea as well.

King of Clones ends with a recent project that Woo-suk has been working on in Siberia, where the bone of a mammoth has been found. With blood and cells believed to be still preserved on the bone, Woo-suk has been appointed to a project to try and clone the extinct mammoth. While the researcher claims this to be an extremely interesting and exciting matter, the other experts brought to the documentary film, question whether it would even be right to bring back an extinct animal in a context and world that is completely different from the one where it used to live so many centuries ago.

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Sourya Sur Roy
Sourya Sur Roy
Sourya keeps an avid interest in all sorts of films, history, sports, videogames and everything related to New Media. Holding a Master of Arts degree in Film Studies, he is currently working as a teacher of Film Studies at a private school and also remotely as a Research Assistant and Translator on a postdoctoral project at UdK Berlin.

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