Outstanding in his FieldDAEGU, North Gyeongsang
Kim Soon-kwon has spent more than half his life in cornfields.
Mr. Kim, better known as “Dr. Corn,” spent 17 years in Nigeria and has visited North Korea 27 times to grow his “super maize.” Whether Africa or North Korea, it did not make much difference to him ― it was some place on earth where people were dying of famine. So long as he was standing surrounded by corn that rose to his waist or higher, Dr. Corn was happy to ease the pain of hunger.
Last Friday morning found him in his laboratory at Kyungpook National University, set to motor out on an old jeep to an experimental farm in Gumi, 40 minutes away. In the farm’s greenhouses, Mr. Kim hybridizes and grows high-yield corn to deliver to North Korean cooperative farms. In two weeks, Mr. Kim will visit North Korea again with Gumi-bred maize.
On this day Mr. Kim is wearing jeans, a vinyl jacket, worn-out sneakers and a baseball cap. His hands are chapped, his nails cracked, the result of years in the outdoors.
Stroking the verdant leaves of a corn stalk, he says, “I just cannot work in a suit and a tie. My ideas simply dry up. I was born to be a farmer.”
Anative of Ulsan, South Gyeongsang province, Mr. Kim was the only son in a family of eight children that never saw a bountiful dinner table. As soon as he could walk, he earned money cleaning out neighborhood toilets, which entailed carrying a jar filled and at times overflowing with excrement.
Hunger touched him during the Korean War. He was 4 years old when starving North Korean refugees took shelter at his house. Five decades later, he still clearly recalls the taste of a tiny rice ball that a refugee offered him.
“It was the first time in my life that I ate pure white rice,” he says. “Until then, my main meal was potatoes and barley. Since then, the taste has forever remained in my mouth.”
Early on he decided he wanted to get rich, but the idea fell flat when he failed to pass the Busan Commercial High School entrance exam. Dispirited, he returned to Ulsan where he farmed and fished for a year, a period he calls the gloomiest of his life.
The following year he entered a local secondary school which happened to be an agricultural school. Mr. Kim says it was like destiny for him to pursue the path of agriculture. During his church prayers one day, the taste of a rice ball came to his lips.
“It was like a message from God above,” he says.
He went on to major in agriculture at Kyungpook National University, where he narrowed his focus to the study of efficient corn production, especially in developing countries. After graduation, he joined the Rural Development Administration in Seoul, but worked mostly in the field. “It does not take more than hard work to be good at farming,” he says, “and I was happy to find it was my mission.” In 1971, a breakthrough came in the form of a scholarship to the University of Hawaii.
Before going to the United States, he met his wife-to-be, Han Eun-seel, an Ewha Womans University student with a lofty air. Ms. Han was determined to marry a pastor and Mr. Kim had to persuade, if not intimidate, her, saying, “I’m going to save the world with corn. You are going to regret it if you don’t marry me.”
The couple married in 1972 in Hawaii, where he continued to concentrate on corn. While earning his doctorate in agriculture at the University of Hawaii, Mr. Kim learned to hybridize two different corn seeds ― a process new to Korea ― and sensed great potential.
Back in Korea in 1974, however, Mr. Kim came to a deadlock. His colleagues did not cooperate with his plans to hybridize corn. “Koreans back then wanted to grow more rice, the symbol of wealth, instead of corn and they did not understand that hybridized corn could produce more,” Mr. Kim says. After laboring to break the impasse, in 1976 Mr. Kim managed to succeed in developing the so-called “super corn” variety from hybrids, whose crops were 20 percent more productive than the regular kind.
The news was reported to then-President Park Chung Hee. Mr. Kim conveyed his strong will to the president to support his research, saying “I’m going to multiply the yields, or I’ll serve 10 years in a prison.” Mr. Kim still remembers people mocking him for pulling off this absurd feat, but when corn yields increased five-fold in 1979 ― dubbed the Second Green Revolution ― his critics vanished. From then on, farmers growing Mr. Kim’s maize started to call him Dr. Corn, a nickname that has stuck to this day.
Then came a suggestion from the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, an arm of the United Nations, to work in Nigeria for “100 times the salary” of his Korean employer, Mr. Kim recalls. He said yes, though not for the money, he insists.
“Once I had done my best in my home country, I wanted to be of service in other places suffering from hunger,” Mr. Kim says. So off to West Africa he went, his wife, two sons and a daughter in tow, never imagining he would stay 17 years in Nigeria. During that time, Mr. Kim was hospitalized five times for malaria. “I always had a will just in case,” he says, “but I survived, I guess because I had a mission from heaven to save people dying of famine.”
It was no easy task, due to his lackluster English and onerous workload. Seven days a week he would stay in the field well past sundown. When co-workers exhorted him not to work himself to death, Mr. Kim retorted, “Corn crops know no Sundays.” When American and British researchers teased him for his stammering English, he countered, “Do you guys speak Korean at least as well as I speak English?”
Despite the hardships, Nigeria seemed the right place for Mr. Kim to devote himself. Corn was sub-Saharan Africa’s main crop, but striga, or witch weed, was killing the crops by sucking away its nutritional content. When Mr. Kim landed in Nigeria, the witch weed’s pink flowers blanketed local cornfields. The task of removing them fell to Mr. Kim.
After endless days and nights in the field, Mr. Kim developed a hybrid corn in 1983 that co-existed with the witch weed, which melded with his philosophy of trying not to eradicate other species.
This breakthrough led Nigeria’s president at the time, General Olusegun Obasanjo, to call Mr. Kim “The Father of Maize,” and his hybridized super corn was etched on Nigeria’s coins. Tributes came in other forms, such as being named honorary chieftain of a tribe in Eripa village, Osun State. They called him “Mayegun,” meaning “the one heartily feeding the hungry ones,” while his wife was “Yeyeniwura” or “Mother of Gold.” Later, a tribe in Inisa village appointed him honorary village chief, and named him “Jagunmolu,” meaning “The Great Achiever.” A group of Nigerian leaders recommended Mr. Kim for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992 and 1993.
Praise comes from closer to home as well. Kim Woon-keun, a director at the Research Center for Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries of Northeast Asia who traveled to North Korea with the scientist, said: “Sook-kwon is such a hard worker; his achievement in the study of agriculture is indeed noteworthy, though there are some people who speak ill of him behind his back out of jealousy.”
“I was overwhelmed with joy to receive such warm honors,” the 56-year scientist recalls. “I even decided to bury my bones on the Dark Continent.” He had already selected a graveyard in northern Nigeria, only to realize another place on earth needed his help: North Korea. In 1995, Mr. Kim returned to his homeland.
It was January 24, 1998 when Mr. Kim first boarded a plane to Pyeongyang, after earning an official invitation from North Korea. During his first night at the Goryeo Hotel he could not sleep for his door had no locks.
“I was afraid that I might be killed ― who knows?” he says.
Since then, Mr. Kim has spent 238 days in North Korea, over 27 visits. His first impression of the North, in 1995, was summed up in one word: desperation. “They were saying things like ‘We have nothing to lose. The only solution we’ve got is to begin a war and to win.’” says Mr. Kim. “I was scared, quite honestly.” Mr. Kim’s visits lasted only about a week, insufficient for agricultural research that must be carried out continuously. “When I insisted on visiting more farms, soldiers were always there to stop me for security reasons.”
By Mr. Kim’s viewpoint, North Korea gave up on agricultural development in 1995. Like the South in the 1970s, North Koreans stuck to rice farming, overlooking corn. It turned out that Kim Il-sung, the leader of the North Korean regime who died in 1994, promoted corn over rice, once saying, “Corn is the king of the field crops.”
But the Great Leader’s high-density farming methods did no good, Mr. Kim learned. Exacerbating the situation, the nation lacked fertilizer. Changing strategy, Mr. Kim eventually developed “Reunification maize,” a hybrid of North and South Korean corn that boosted the nation’s annual corn yield to 500,000 tons of maize crops. Kim Jong-il, North Korea’s current leader, reportedly once said, “Study Dr. Kim.”
“It takes at least 2 million tons of maize to feed all of North Korea each year. There is a long way to go,” says Mr. Kim. He has since signed a contract with North Koreans to develop new hybrids and grow corn on North Korean cooperative farms through 2007.
After so much time in the North, Mr. Kim has formed some strong political views. “They’re not confident about maintaining their system, and that’s why they turn a deaf ear to the international community,” he says.
“North Korea is changing,” he continues. “I feel it every time I go. Now they are willing to earn money, for one thing, compared to the past when they were just passive and languid.”
Mr. Kim worked on more than corn in North Korea. The plant scientist claims of working in the background for the historic rendezvous of Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong-il, as well as in reuniting separated family members. Growing increasingly political, in 1997 Mr. Kim supported Kim Dae-jung in the presidential election. But in the last election, Mr. Kim supported Lee Hoi-chang, with a hard-line policy against North Korea.
As a price for delving into politics, Mr. Kim said he would resign from his post as head of the Korea-based International Corn Foundation, but this suggestion was rebuffed by the foundation due to his stature.
Critics said he did not know where to dabble in politics. “They said it’s not a wise thing to do for such a public figure as Mr. Kim,” says foundation official Wang Sang-won.
Kim Soon-kwon, however, argues that a splinter of President Kim’s Millennium Democratic Party, the Korean Committee for Reconciliation and Cooperation, betrayed him first. The group, according to Mr. Kim, borrowed fertilizer from the foundation to support North Korea and never paid the money back.
Lee Seung-whan, the committee’s executive director, says, “We never made that decision; Mr. Kim is just being quick-tempered and standing firm on his errors.”
“Whatever happened, Mr. Kim is like a messenger from heaven,” adds Mr. Wang. “Seeing him working, I get the feeling that he’s an ironman. He’s also one of the few people who have the guts to say what he wants to say in North Korea at the cost of his life.”
North and South Korea should learn to co-exist, Mr. Kim says, just like super maize. “As you can see from reunification corn, the union of North and South can bring even better results.”
by Chun Su-jin