Korea's Electric Power Generation
- Until 1945, Korea was one country with the total electric power
capacity of 800 megawatts, mostly from hydro generating stations in
northern provinces. After the end of World War II in 1945, the
country was occupied by Soviet troops in the North and Americans
in the South. In 1948, Koreans set up a pro-American government
in the South and a communist government in the North.
Due to the shortage of electric power in Korea, I had to use a
kerosene lamp like this when I studied during the evening hours
before coming to the United States in 1954.
- One week before the first general election in the South, North Korean
authorities cut off the power supply to the South. While Koreans in the
South needed 200 mw of electric power, the total resource was only 50 mw.
This was the most serious economic problem Synman Rhee has to face. Rhee was of course (south) Korea's first president. The Korean War (1960-53) compounded the problem. Koreans could not develop industry without electric power.
- Korea now has the total electric capacity of 60,000 mw, more than 1,000
times the capacity the country started with in 1948. Furthermore,
Korea now is one of the countries exporting the technology of nuclear
power generation. How did this happen?
- Rhee was desperate to solve this problem of power shortage, and tried all
available means. He was not a scientist. He once conducted a secret
research on perpetual motion which violates the law of energy conservation.
During the Korean War, he attempted to build a hydrogen bomb. He was
surrounded by "scientists" who did not understand the difference between
separation of hydrogen from water and nuclear fusion.
- Toward his late years, Rhee was not in control of himself. He was surrounded
by his ministers who could tell him only things he wanted to hear. The
nuclear power generation was a very sweet word for him. In 1959, Koreans
built a big box-like building to tell Rhee that Korea started building
nuclear power plants. They held a big celebration, and Rhee was very
happy. This photo is from Professor Yoo Young-Ik's article about Syngman
I was not in Korea to tell exactly what happened in 1959. But it appears that Rhee did not hear the true story from his ministers or advisors. Koreans did not have enough brain power to construct nuclear power plants at that time. In 1961, my uncle briefly headed Korea's Atomic Energy Agency. It was a joke. He was a big shot in medical education and public health, but he did not know the hydrogen atom consists of one electron and one proton.
Furthermore, it was not the first time for Rhee to create comedic tragedies. Please read my earlier article on this subject at the end of this webpage. Click here.
- This is a photo of the Linden Electric Power Station in New Jersey. I could
see this station whenever I was on a bus from Princeton to New York. In 1959,
this oil-powered station used to generate 400 megawatts to power two or three
factories in that area. In 1959, Korea could only produce 250 megawatts,
considerable improvement from 50 mw in 1948, but less than 400 mw from
this single station.
This is a photo of the plate commemorating the beginning of Korea's nuclear age. Koreans started building their first nuclear power plant at the village of Kori near Ulsan in 1971.
Koreans of course imported nuclear technologies from Westinghouse Electric Cooperation in the United States. The crucial technology is how to transfer the heat generated by nuclear reactions to the steam engine. This technology is called "water hammering." Westinghouse was quite stingy about transferring this technology. It took Korean engineers eight years to figure out how to build reactors, and the Kori reactor started producing electricity in 1979.
- How do I know all these? In order to receive technology from
the Westinghouse of the United States, Korea Electric Company
organized a team of engineers, and the leader of this team was
my high-school classmate. His name is Roh Yoon-Rae. He used to
come with his teammates to the Westinghouse research lab in Reading,
Pennsylvania, not too far from the Washington, DC area where I live.
He used to come to my house with his troops.
After high school graduation, he went to SNU's Engineering College with me. Like me, he was going to become an electrical engineer. Unlike me, he stayed in engineering. He was an excellent student, and was picked up by Korea Electric Company after graduation.
- Rhee was desperate to solve this problem of power shortage, and tried all available means. He was not a scientist. He once conducted a secret research on perpetual motion which violates the law of energy conservation. During the Korean War, he attempted to build a hydrogen bomb. He was surrounded by "scientists" who did not understand the difference between separation of hydrogen from water and nuclear fusion. Click here.
Lessons from Rhee's Hydrogen-bomb Project
- When I was in junior high school, I had a "high-tech" skill of repairing
radio sets, and I used to fix radios for some "high-class" people in
Korea. They did not pay me money, but they praised me as the scientist
who would build Korea's first atom bomb. It was three years before my
high school graduation.
Due to the War, I lived in Chinhae from July of 1950 to August of 1951. One day in the spring of 1951, the assistant to the Commander of the Chinhae Naval Base came to me with his jeep and told me that I had to go somewhere. I assumed that the radio set in the Commander's house broke down, but the jeep went into a secret lab within the naval base heavily guarded by machine guns.
- In the lab, I met two naval officers. One was a grey-haired colonel
(called captain in navy) and a young major (called lt. commander in navy).
The grey-haired scientist was called Lee Yong Dae, but he could speak
only Japanese. I do not remember the name of the young scientist, but I
remember his face. He was Prof. Lee Tong Nyong (now at Pohang Univ.).
He thought I was hopeless and asked me whether I could understand what
was going on. I said No.
The navy officer who took me there told me that I should look at the lab very carefully but should not tell anyone about my visit there. Korean authorities thought the lab was a hydrogen bomb factory, and that the future bomb maker like myself should be briefed about the project. Hard to believe? In general, the readers of my articles regard me as an honest person.
- The story goes like this. During the 6.25 War, some Korean naval ships
received their maintenance services in the U.S. naval bases in Japan.
Thus, Korean authorities were able to gather "reliable" intelligence
information about Japan from the naval officers who went there frequently.
One day, President Rhee Seung-Man received an intelligence report that
there is in Japan a scientist who knows how to make hydrogen bombs, but
his talent is not recognized in the U.S.-occupied Japan. Rhee immediately
ordered his Navy Chief of Staff to bring (illegally) the Japanese scientist
to Korea, and make hydrogen bombs. That was how the above-mentioned
secret lab was built within the Chinhae Naval Base. This happened before
the United Sates tested the first hydrogen bomb in 1952.
Korean authorities knew the word hydrogen, but did not know the difference between atomic ionization and nuclear fusion. The hydrogen atom can be separated from the water molecule, and Japanese once thought they could use so-separated hydrogen for aircraft fuel. The grey-haired Japanese scientist was an expert on ionization, not on fusion. Thus, he was able to make car batteries, not the hydrogen bomb. It was Prof. Lee Tong Nyong who explained this to the authorities. Fortunately, the hydrogen bomb factory later became a battery-making factory. This was how Korea's first profitable battery factory was built.
- In 1987 in Los Angeles, I met the man (former navy intelligence officer)
who in 1951 submitted the intelligence report about the hydrogen bomb
to the Office of the President. I asked him whether he was still in
intelligence business. He did not answer my question (perhaps usual
habit of intelligence people). One year later, I read his article
published in one of the Korean newspapers in the U.S. Alas! He said
there that the project was indeed a bomb project.
This incident teaches us many lessons.
- We cannot blame Rhee Seung-Man for not knowing anything about
science. He was a politician. Quite contrary to what our young people
say these days, he was thoroughly anti-Japanese. Yet, he thought we had
to "steal" science and technology from Japan. He had enough political
guts to "kidnap" a Japanese citizen to Korea. Indeed, Rhee's idea had
a very profound influence on me in dealing with Japanese. I became
intensely interested in Japan after learning about Rhee's "romantic"
venture. I hope to be able to tell you someday how I tried to imitate
Rhee in designing my own research program.
- It is not an easy task for authorities to make sound scientific
judgments. The ill-fated U.S. SSC project tells the story. It is not
always clear to me whether Korea's decision-making processes these days
are any better than the process which led to Rhee's hydrogen bomb project
in 1951. I still think the first priority should be given to the
investment in science education. We need more professors to reduce
teaching loads on our young scientists. Otherwise, we cannot compete
- The above-mentioned hydrogen bomb expert apparently was not a
respected scientist in Japan. There are these days foreign scientists
who come to Korea and get treated like prophets. Before inviting them,
we should examine carefully how much they are respected in their own
countries. If a foreign scientist wants to hold a conference in Korea,
it is a good idea to check if he/she has a record of holding a conference
in his/her home turf.
- Our relation with Japan will become more complicated in the future. As I said before, we should understand them if we are to produce sound policies toward them. After I started talking about Japan, I received mails from a number of people saying that they have many Japanese friends. If they know about Japan, and if I know about Japan, we should combine our knowledge, instead of quarreling over who is Korea's "No. 1" expert on Japan.
- We cannot blame Rhee Seung-Man for not knowing anything about science. He was a politician. Quite contrary to what our young people say these days, he was thoroughly anti-Japanese. Yet, he thought we had to "steal" science and technology from Japan. He had enough political guts to "kidnap" a Japanese citizen to Korea. Indeed, Rhee's idea had a very profound influence on me in dealing with Japanese. I became intensely interested in Japan after learning about Rhee's "romantic" venture. I hope to be able to tell you someday how I tried to imitate Rhee in designing my own research program.