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Perils of extreme measures

June 22,2019
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Lawmakers from the opposition Liberty Korea Party hold pickets reading “Restore Korea’s reactors!” in an auditorium at the National Assembly Library to demand the resumption of the construction of the Shin Hanul 3 and 4 reactors last December. [YONHAP]
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Lee Hyun-sang
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Korea’s famed poet and essayist Pi Chun-deuk wrote, ”The foolish cannot recognize destiny. The ordinary let it slip away. The wise revive the karma upon a touch of the sleeves.” Seizing the moment doesn’t just apply to relationships. One may not know an opportunity until it passes by. History tells of many mistakes that led from lost opportunities.

Tokitaka was the head of the Tanegashima clan, the lords who dominated the southern island of Kyushu. In 1543, a Chinese vessel with Portuguese onboard sailed to the island in a storm. Tokitaka bought two muskets from the strangers for 2,000 silver bars, which would be worth around 2 billion won ($1.7 million) today. That kind of fortune could have sustained an army of 200 soldiers for a year. How could a lord on a remote island own such wealth?

The mystery dates back to silversmiths from the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), ancient Korea. Silversmithing was a craft that required the highly sophisticated skill of extracting silver from ore and differentiating the melting point of silver and copper. A royal court book recorded that a mine worker and a slave discovered the technique while working in a mine in Hamgyeong, northern Korea, and revealed the novel silver-extracting technique to King Yeonsangun. The king of Joseon in the 16th century would have promoted the skill to buy more silk from China’s Ming Dynasty.

Actually, the technology made Joseon one of the top silver producers in the world at the time. But due to a rebel group overthrowing Yeonsangun and making his half-brother Jungjong the new king, the technology was considered a kind of “past evil” — to use the nomenclature of the Moon Jae-in administration — of the former corrupt ruler that had to be eradicated. The silver ore mine was closed for “fanning luxury,” and the invaluable technology disappeared.

Korean artisans were welcomed elsewhere. Silversmiths found work in a mine in Iwami Ginzan, west of Honshu Island. Two newcomers presumed to have come from Joseon earned credence with their new techniques. Soon, the remote mine became the world’s second largest producer of silver, making Japan rich in the precious metal. If the craftsmen had not been kicked out of Joseon because their skills were considered retrograde, an island lord in Japan could not have had so much silver stockpiled at his home. The two wooden firearms he purchased were examined and duplicated into rifles that pointed at the heart of Joseon 49 years later.

That episode from 500 years ago reminds us of the ongoing dispute over the theft of Korean reactor technology. The national nuclear safety authority and intelligence agency are investigating allegations of leaks of blueprints and documents about Korea’s indigenous technology for the APR-1400, an advanced pressurized water reactor design that has been exported to United Arab Emirates. The Nuclear Application Programs (NAPS) of the APR-1400 design are suspected to have been delivered into the hands of UAE and American companies.

Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power (KHNP) denies the leak having anything to do with the liberal Moon Jae-in administration’s policy to phase out nuclear power. The KHNP claims the NAPS was transferred as part and parcel of the reactor deal with the UAE and that a retiree accused of industrial espionage quit work before the Moon Jae-in administration began.

The truth may be revealed through investigations. But one thing cannot be denied: Korea’s nuclear reactor technology, which was among the world’s best, is losing ground on its home turf. As many as 144 employees walked away from three nuclear-related state enterprises, including the KHNP, last year. The number of people quitting doubled from 2015. Many of them found new jobs in nuclear power companies overseas. They could have been recruited as sources of Korea’s excellent knowhow. A professor in the nuclear engineering department at Seoul National University said labs these days are empty. Our 50-year-old nuclear industrial ecosystem is crumbling.

Steel mills that are credited with Korea’s fast industrialization face a similar fate. They are now dubbed “environmental pollutants” and may have to shut down their blast furnaces. The common practice of letting out vapor from the furnaces is suddenly a problem in Korea. With the encouragement of environmentalists, the government also plans to demolish the river weirs built under former conservative government of Lee Myung-bak. The offshore mines bought under the Lee administration for energy reserves are being put up for sale at bargain prices just because they are reminders of the Lee administration’s allegedly corrupt “resources diplomacy” initiative. The government does not care to distinguish worthwhile projects from bad ones — if they come with imprimaturs of past administrations.

Who should be blamed for the loss of silversmith skills in the Joseon Dynasty? Were the silversmith traitors for selling skills that had become verboten? Shouldn’t’ the blame go to authorities who were blind to their value? The things we choose to renounce today could boomerang back at us one day.

JoongAng Ilbo, June 21, Page 30