The move came after a medical team at Seoul's Kyonghee University announced earlier last week that it had successfully cloned a human embryo in its initial stage of development.
The announcement caught the government off guard and sparked protest rallies by South Koreans, whose deep-rooted Confucian beliefs were shaken by the news.
In downtown Seoul today, 20 civic activists shook signs demanding a ban on human cloning research. One sign carried a row of identical mug shots and asked: "Which one is the real Me?"
The Science and Technology Ministry was not given any prior information about the experiment by the Kyonghee University doctors, said Kim Ho-sung, a ministry official. "Our position is firm and clear: There will be no funding for any such research," he said.
But Kim added that the government planned no legal action against the scientists. "There will always be maverick scientists. We cannot do anything to stop them," he said. "They will be few in number, and you do not burn down the whole house to kill a few fleas."
At the National Assembly, legislators prepared to pass a new law next month banning research on human cloning except for research on cancer or other diseases.
"The law will not punish anybody but will have a strong warning effect on the few scientists who are interested in cloning research," said Rep. Rhee Shang-hi, who spearheaded the legislation. But civic organizations charged that the legislation would do nothing to stop human cloning research because it does not call for penalties and provides no clear distinction between cloning research and similar scientific work.
"We must stop scientists seeking commercial benefits and cheap heroism, like those at Kyonghee University," 20 civic groups said in a joint statement.
Dr. Lee Bo-yeon, a professor at the fertility clinic of Kyonghee University Hospital, said he conducted the experiment to help infertile patients and said cloning human embryos should be encouraged to create replacement organs. But he said he would conduct no further experiments until legal and ethical disputes were resolved.
Many Koreans, influenced by Confucian mores, believe that their bodies are inherited from ancestors. They prize their family lineage and keep detailed documents about their forebears. Human cloning will disrupt that tradition.
Lee's team replaced the nucleus of a woman's egg with the nucleus of one of her body cells, transferring her DNA to the egg. The team then cultivated the egg until it grew into four cells, an early embryonic stage.
American cloning experts said it was the first time they knew of that human DNA had been transferred from a body cell into a human egg, with the egg then developing into embryonic cells. Body cells, as opposed to eggs or sperm, contain the full complement of a person's DNA. But the Americans added that the experiment was stopped too early to determine whether it would grow into a viable embryo, much less a human fetus.
Others, including the Scottish scientists who created Dolly the sheep, the world's first cloned animal, even doubted Lee's claims, noting the South Korean team has yet to present its evidence to scientific journals.