The Ministry of Health and Welfare said human embryos, younger than 14 days and preserved for more than five years, could be used in medical research starting next year.
Embryos are widely recognized as human beings after 14 days, when organs start to develop, ministry officials told United Press International. The ministry's draft "Life Ethics Bill" limits human embryo use to stem cell research for treating diseases and developing contraception technologies or infertility treatments.
For pregnant women, gene testing of embryos is restricted to confirming the presence of hereditary diseases, the draft said. Gene therapy can be used only on patients with hereditary diseases, cancer, AIDS or in cases where no alternative treatment exists.
The ministry will submit the guidelines to the National Assembly for approval. The guidelines said cloning human embryos will be strictly prohibited under any circumstances. The ministry will also ban artificial hybrid fertilization between human beings and animals and the genetic treatment of fertilized eggs, embryos and fetuses.
"The most sticking point was the ban on the cloning of somatic cells," said Lee Ui-kyung of the Korea Institute of Health and Social Affairs.
Centers, conducting embryo research and genetic treatment, will be required to register with the Ministry of Health and Welfare and form internal institutional review boards.
"We will review the guidelines within three years, considering the development of science and technology and changes (in) ... ethics standards," said Lee, who master-minded the guidelines.
Kwon Joon-wook, a medical policy chief at the Heath Ministry, said the ministry's policy direction would help address the controversy over embryonic research in the country. The guidelines have touched off an immediate and heated dispute.
Kim Hwan-seok, head of the science center of South Korea's major civic group, told UPI, "We welcome the ministry's decision to place a ban on cloning of human embryos. Only Britain permits cloning of human embryos in the world due to consideration of life ethics."
However, Hwang Woo-seok, a veterinarian at Seoul National University, said that biotechnology could dramatically enhance the possibility of conquering such diseases as diabetes, heart troubles and dementia.
"Korea will fall behind the trend of the world's scientific research," Hwang told UPI. Some scientists said a cloned embryo is "not really a human embryo," just an "activated egg."
Clonaid, a human cloning firm, which recently has established an affiliate company in South Korea, said it would ignore the Seoul government's ban.
"Ten Korean people have applied for the cloning of embryos," said Clonaid Korea spokesman. "We will follow headquarters' policy on human cloning."
The religious community here opposes the government's decision to allow the use of human embryos, saying the research itself is the "harbinger" of huge destruction of human life.
Many scientists and analysts said that more efforts should be made to balance ethics and science.