This article evaluates the role nationalism played in popularizing the myth of Benjamin Whiso Lee as the “Imaginary Father of the Korean Nuclear Bomb” in the early 1990s. The main argument is that nostalgic recollections of the Yushin dictatorship, anti-Japanese nationalism, and the desire for Korean reunification provided the ideological background for Lee's mythical image. But the image would never have attained the level of myth had physics not enjoyed remarkable popularity. Although Lee, a Korean American theoretical particle physicist, never collaborated with Korean dictator Park Chung-hee, in a series of novels he was portrayed as a martyr and collaborator who led South Korea's nuclear weapons program in the 1970s. Lee was also depicted as laying a cornerstone of nuclear scientific collaboration between North and South Korea. These two aspects of Lee's mythical image were deeply related to the various social contexts, and so powerful was the combination that many South Koreans came to approve of nuclear armament. The story of Benjamin Whiso Lee, a classic example of the relationship between science and nationalism, reveals far more.
Korean Prometheus? Mythifying Benjamin Whiso Lee
Sung Won Kim is a PhD candidate in the history and philosophy of science program at Seoul National University, Republic of Korea. He received his MS in history of science at Seoul National University in 2007. His research interests include the history of science and technology and science and technology studies in modern Korea and East Asia. His current research focuses on the study of the metropolitan railroad network in Seoul since the 1960s.