[Viewpoint] The man who should’ve won the Nobel

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[Viewpoint] The man who should’ve won the Nobel

So now that they are both Nobel Peace Prize laureates, will President Barack Obama agree to meet the Dalai Lama?

One of the things that used to irritate me when I lived in Korea was the government’s extreme sensitivity about riling China. President Roh Moo-hyun came into office in 2003 in part because he loudly proclaimed that he would not “kowtow” to the United States.

The Dalai Lama was a prime example of Korean coyness. To promote Jeju’s self-declared title as an “island of peace,” and to draw attention to Korea’s increasing global profile, a gathering of Nobel Peace Prize laureates was organized three or four years ago. Unfortunately, someone evidently forgot that the roster of laureates included the Dalai Lama.

Now, it is important to understand that the Dalai Lama was never denied a visa to attend the conference. What happened was that - oh, dear! - the meeting came and went before the application could be processed.

For all I know, the paperwork is still to this day in some bureaucrat’s inbox.

The explanation - “it would complicate our relations with China” - emanated anonymously from the White House just a couple of weeks ago to explain why President Obama would not meet the Tibetan leader during his recent visit to America. Mr. Obama is going to China next month, and he wants to avoid ruffling feathers in Beijing.

Sometime in the future, of course, he is eager to meet this great humanitarian.

So who is craven now?

And why does the Obama administration fear unpleasant conversation with China? What will China do? Refuse to sell us $337.8 billion worth of exports ever again? Stir up the North Koreans so they will stop cooperating with our efforts to curb their nukes?

And then, just a few days later came the news that Mr. Obama is this year’s top peacemaker, at least as seen from Oslo. So now he and the Dalai Lama are members of the same exclusive club. He surely wouldn’t snub a fellow laureate, would he?

I had my own, more personal reaction to Mr. Obama’s selection. I had another horse in the race. That is, I edited the nomination documents for Kim Soon-kwon, a Korean corn breeder who was also a Nobel Peace Prize nominee.

Naturally, I hoped Dr. Kim would win as a validation of my scintillating wordsmithing.

Dr. Kim, in fact, was an interesting nominee, even if I do feel a little possessive about his candidacy.

The rationale for him as a Nobel laureate was that he had saved millions of lives by developing hybrid varieties of corn appropriate to the environments of a score of countries in Asia and Africa.

One of his insights was the “co-survival” principle. Trying to breed a strain of corn that would be perfectly resistant to particular pests or parasites, he realized, just encouraged those scourges to mutate into varieties able to overcome the resistance bred into the corn.

The same phenomenon has been observed with antibiotic drugs, and now we worry about “killer bugs” immune to antibiotics.

Dr. Kim bred his corn to use Darwinian evolution against itself. It was a sort of horticultural jujitsu, where the weaker combatant, the corn, uses leverage to overcome an opponent’s strength. In this case, the opponents were fungi, plant viruses and the like.

Dr. Kim’s formula was 95-5. That is, 95 percent of the corn plants would survive a hostile infestation, and 5 percent of the invading organisms would find a foothold among the maize. Given a chance of survival, he theorized, the invaders would have less incentive to mutate in ways that would require ever new corn hybrids.

The application of such a “live-and-let-live” formula to political peace seems intuitive, but remains unperfected.

Dr. Kim’s work in Africa so impressed North Korea that it made at least one attempt to kidnap him and bring him to the Hermit Kingdom to improve its agriculture. Kidnapping proved unnecessary, however; Dr. Kim heard about the famines of the mid-1990s and volunteered to bring his knowledge to alleviate the North’s suffering.

While there, the seed engineer didn’t hesitate to stand up to his hosts when he thought it necessary. Once Dr. Kim, a devout Christian, in a sermon in a Pyongyang church assailed his congregation as sinners who had brought the famine on themselves by following faulty principles.

Another time, accusing North Korean officials of scuttling proposed reunions of divided families, he threatened to cancel further agricultural cooperation, refused to eat his dinner and fled to his hotel room, where he cried audibly all night. He calculated that his room was likely bugged, and his lament would be heard in the innermost political circles.

This is not a guy to stiff the Dalai Lama just because the Chinese might glower. I wish Kim Soon-kwon had won the Nobel Peace Prize.


The writer is a former editor of the JoongAng Daily.

by Harold Piper

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