Academic journal article Journal of East Asian Studies

From Learning to Creating: Biotechnology and the Postindustrial Developmental State in Korea

Academic journal article Journal of East Asian Studies

From Learning to Creating: Biotechnology and the Postindustrial Developmental State in Korea

Article excerpt

South Korea is currently undergoing a process of industrial restructuring. As competitors in the Asian region have begun to catch up--in terms of technological know-how, investment mobilization, price competition, and human capital development--advanced Asian economies such as South Korea's have had to shift their industrial focus away from conventional manufacturing sectors toward postindustrial sectors including biotechnology, nanotechnology, and advanced information and communications technologies. As such, the ongoing processes of postindustrial restructuring in South Korea have involved a transition from the industrial learning paradigm to a new knowledge creation paradigm where technology innovation, rather than technology borrowing, is key. This article examines this transformative process in the area of biotechnology and bioindustry development. It specifically looks at how the South Korean developmental state has begun to reinvent itself in order to meet the challenges of innovation-driven industrialization.

The first section of this article provides an overview of the biotechnology sector in South Korea, highlighting both nascent successes and imminent challenges. The second section revisits the postwar developmental state model and sketches an analytical framework to better understand Korea's developmental state-in-transition. The last three sections examine how the developmental state has begun to transform itself and its relationships with nonstate actors and the market. They focus on new patterns in (1) administrative coordination; (2) R&D collaboration; and (3) the construction of new market institutions, particularly those that structure competition among emerging biotechnology firms.

It is my view that the heavy-handedness of the postwar developmental state--a process of directing industrial transformation from the top down--is no longer viable in the current context of postindustrial restructuring in South Korea. That is not to say, however, that the developmentally oriented state has entirely retreated in the face of these new industrial challenges. The state continues to play a critical role in industrial transformation, though I contend it is a qualitatively different one. In short, the state still matters; how it matters, however, is being transformed.

Biotechnology: Prospects and Challenges

Biotechnology was targeted as a future industry for development as early as 1982 when the Ministry of Science and Technology unveiled its National Research and Development Program. (1) The biotechnology promotion law was enacted a year later, though its effect on industrial restructuring was then minimal, as research and development (R&D) funds for biotechnology from both public and private sources were scant. At that time, greater emphasis was placed on strengthening Korea's information technology capabilities. It was not until 1994 that the government refocused its attention on the biotech sector. Then, seven ministries--among them the Ministries of Science and Technology (MOST), Commerce and Industry (MOCIE), Health and Welfare (MOHW), and Agriculture (MOA)--endorsed the "Biotech 2000" program. According to that plan, Korea aspired to be among the top seven biotechnology producing countries by 2010.

Today there are reasons to think that such optimism is not entirely unfounded. According to the MOCIE, 450 active biotechnology firms have formed in Korea. Industry insiders figure that there may actually be more than 600 venture firms working on biotech products and services, ranging from drug discovery to bioinformatics. As of 2001, there were 210 pharmaceutical research labs in Korea. (2) Currently, forty-three Korean pharmaceutical companies have developed more than 130 new drugs that are either in phase one or phase two clinical trials. With universal health care already implemented in Korea, domestic demand for health-related biotech products is high. In 2003 nearly half of Korea's total biotechnology output (domestic sales and for export) was in biomedical products. …

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