Motivated Korean students and a boom in science in South Korea

Tae-Hwan Kwon, Professor, Department of Biochemistry and Cell Biology, School of Medicine, Director, BK21 PLUS Program, Kyungpook National University, Daegu, South Korea.

Due to the substantial investment in research and development, and a preference to be a researcher as a job, South Korea’s research output has soared significantly. Many young students in Asia are armed with motivation and curiosity in science, and they are already pioneering their future with more enthusiasm and energy than previous generations.

Figure 1: Professor Tae-Hwan Kwon.

The BioZoom Journal kindly asked me to write a short article regarding the differences in performing research between European and Asian countries. Moreover, my personal views were requested on the differences in working conditions for the research between Denmark and South Korea. Although I have studied and worked in both countries for many years (Figure 2), these questions are challenging for me to provide a proper answer, since performing basic science is fundamentally the same all over the world. Moreover, Asian students, particularly Korean young students, have been taught in almost the same way as European students, e.g., reading and studying English textbooks and papers and making presentations in English. However, I happily accepted the invitation to describe Asian students mainly in terms of differences in culture, compared with European students. Moreover, I will briefly introduce some unique Korean history in the 20th century, which affected education in Korea. I hope that this short article provides a little help in understanding Asian countries and Asian students who are currently working in your laboratory. 

A unique South Korean history in the 20th century
According to the World Economic Forum (September 2018) and OECD database, South Korea is one of the most educated countries in the world with the highest percentage of university graduates among people aged 25 to 34 (69.8%; OECD average: 44.5%, and Denmark: 46.6%) (1,2). Moreover, the country has invested heavily in education including financial support for pre-school education. More children are enrolled in early years education, i.e. the enrollment of children under the age of 3 in early childhood education in 2016 was 97%, which is the same as Denmark (3). Regardless of income, parents in Korea are very willing to provide their children with a better education. 

However, the belief that “education is important and essential” has not been developed in a short period, but it has been placed in Korean minds over the past several hundred years. Notably, in the early and mid-20th century, Koreans experienced the deplorable colonial period in the Korean peninsula (1910 -1945) occupied by Japanese militarism and the miserable Korean war between South Korea and North Korea (1950 – 1953) after World War II. Koreans appreciate Denmark’s support during and after the Korean war by sending a hospital ship Jutlandia to provide medical assistance and establishing the National Medical Center in Seoul in 1958. 

Figure 2. a) School of Medicine, Kyungpook National University, Daegu, South Korea; b) Aarhus University, Aarhus, Denmark .Before his tenue in Korea, Kwon worked in Department of Biomedicine, Aarhus University. He still has several active collaborations in Denmark.

After these historical occasions, my parents’ generation, who had to re-establish the destroyed nation, had a firm idea that the best investment for the future is education. They struggled with poverty and devoted themselves to economic development and their children’s education. They rebuilt many schools and did not hesitate to accept many advanced educational systems from Europe and the United States. Perhaps it was a kind of unrequited love to the future and the next generation. I was born into a generation that has benefited from their efforts, and we have experienced the time of overcoming  poverty and turning it into economic abundance. Today, the economy of South Korea has grown substantially and is the 11th largest in the world. And now my children’s generation is fully able to enjoy the freedom and the opportunity to do whatever they want (Figure 3). Based on these recent unique historical background and tradition, young students in South Korea are well disciplined and have been taught to study hard and to behave diligently and sincerely. Moreover, they are very keen to learn and develop new technology and culture from inside and outside of the country. 

Science in South Korea 
One of the strong points in Asia is that investment in research and development (R&D) is rapidly increasing. In South Korea, it has almost doubled in the last 20 years: 2.3% of gross domestic product (GDP) in 1996 vs. 4.24% of GDP in 2016 (4). One of the differences between South Korea and the UK (or other European countries) is the financial source for the research. In South Korea, more than 70% of R&D investment comes from the business sector, whereas the business sector in the UK funds half (4). These numbers indicate that the proportions invested in basic research are relatively lower in South Korea. Accordingly, many students prefer to get a job in big companies, like Samsung, LG, SK, and Hyundai, instead of working with basic research at the universities or at research institutes funded by the government. 

China, Japan, and South Korea have the most researchers in East Asia. In terms of researcher density, South Korea is outstanding, for example, ~ 7 per thousand population in South Korea vs. ~4 per thousand population in the United States (4). Thus, due to the substantial investments in R&D and a preference to be a researcher as a job, South Korea’s research output had increased to ~65,000 research articles in the Scopus database in 2017 (article output: almost 3.5% of the world) (4). By comparison, Japan published 89,000 articles (4). Moreover, South Korea ranked the fourth in the world for the number of patent applications filed under the PCT, after the United States, Japan, and Germany (in 2016, Korea: 14,867.6 vs. Denmark: 1,304.1) (5). 

Figure 3: Time for family in Busan, one of the main cities in South Korea.

But there are still some critical issues in science that need to be solved in South Korea. For instance, the average scholarly impact of their publications is still around the world mean, which is lower than that of Hong Kong and Singapore. According to the Scimago Journal & Country Rank (6), the citations per document published during 1996 – 2018 are only 12.95 (Denmark: 25.73; United States: 24.66). The citations per document, however, were gradually increased, which have been higher than that of Japan since 2009 (6). Moreover, bottom-up basic research is largely underfunded, and start-up grants to young researchers are insufficient and should be expanded (7). The research infrastructure in universities and international collaborations are weak points (7). These issues in science have been discussed, which made the South Korean government launch the BK21 FOUR project, a new program to support graduate students and post-docs from next year. We expect that this project will improve research administrations in the university and give more financial support to young researchers. Many universities in South Korea are now emphasizing on the quality of the papers and encouraging international collaborations more actively. Thus, we are expecting many chances to build up new exchange programs for students and researchers between South Korea and European countries. 

Asian students
Because of cultural differences between the East and the West, Asian students who come to Europe are often inadvertently misunderstood. Asians have for a long time been influenced by Chinese philosophy (Confucian ideas) and lifestyle, and South Korea is no exception. Some ideas that have dominated Korean life are to honor older people and follow them. 

Traditionally, students have learned not to disobey their parents and teachers. For this reason, Asian students tend to be reluctant to express their opinions, even if they have different views from professors and senior researchers. In this case, you need to encourage them to speak more freely, and then sometimes you will be surprised by their brilliant ideas. Students have also learned that they should endure their difficulties. Therefore, sometimes they cannot refuse it, even if it is left out of their capacity. In this occasion, it is necessary to ask the students often, if they have any difficulties. 

Linguistic problems often arise. In particular, Asian students who speak Korean, Chinese, and Japanese as their mother tongue have difficulties in communicating and writing in English. This problem is because they use characters and languages ​​that are entirely different from Roman characters. Thus, it is important to encourage them and give them opportunities to talk about their experimental results and daily lives in English. 

Asian students, however, are armed with as much motivation and curiosity in science as Western students have, together with the full capacity to design, perform, and accomplish experimental research. I am confident that they have dreams and make great efforts to make their dreams come true. Since South Korea is a country with a big generational gap, my image of the young generation may be out of date. They know, where they are, and they seldomly give up to accomplish their dreams. 

Recently, I watched a music video of BTS, a world-famous South Korean band group. Like their message of hope, I believe that young people are already pioneering their future with more enthusiasm and energy than previous generations. We are always rooting for young students and sincerely hope that everyone has a great future ahead.


1. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD); available at
2. World Economic Forum; available at
3. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD); available at
4. van Noorden R. Five in Asia. Nature 558; 500-551. 2018.
5. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Patents Database (OECD, 2016); available at
6. Scimago Journal & Country Rank; available at
7. Yeom HW. South Korean science needs restructuring. Nature 558; 511-513, 2018.

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