Korea's Electric Power Generation



Lessons from Rhee's Hydrogen-bomb Project

    Y.S.Kim (1995.11.19)

  • 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.

    1. 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.

    2. 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 with Japan.

    3. 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.

    4. 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.