A kimchi spirit

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A kimchi spirit

I’ve recently joined a corporate-sponsored kimjang event, the centuries-old winter tradition of making Korea’s staple dish, kimchi, together with relatives and neighbors. Over 1,000 people from affiliated companies and charity organizations formed lines in a public gym and stooped for hours filling organic Napa cabbages with various rich kimchi seasonings. Others were busy washing and chopping white radishes and other ingredients that go into kimchi.

The men in particular came to the realization of how painstaking and laborious the work can be. The hundreds of containers of kimchi were delivered to old people living alone or families in poor neighborhoods. I can still smell the hard kimchi odor on my fingers. I will long remember the warmth of the people volunteering to do such charity work. At the same time, I thought about the promise of growth for the kimchi industry as a scientifically proven health food and how our corporate and social community can cooperate to enhance the competitiveness of our greatest tradition in food.

In the post-war days of the 1960s, kimchi and a bowl of rice was what most families lived on. Mothers felt as if they were rich after they filled the jars of kimchi. I remember the taste of freshly made kimchi always made my mouth water. When I was studying overseas, I would feel better after a long exam period when I made a stew out of kimchi and sausages. We say “kimchi” instead of “cheese” to draw a smile on our faces when we take a picture. Kimchi is that close to our hearts. It brings out a smile, a sense of happiness, when we are sharing with others. In any publicity video on Korea, kimchi is never excluded. It has become an iconic part of the Korean people and their lifestyle.

Kimjang - the communal winter labor to make kimchi for the coming year - was registered as a Unesco item of intangible cultural heritage last December. The act of making and sharing kimchi, a traditional fermented dish with high levels of nutrients, has been recognized as a quintessential part of Korean culture and community heritage. Regardless of the recognition it receives from outside Korea, kimjang is undoubtedly a mainstay of our culture.

Our traditional food is, however, threatened by China. Imports of Chinese kimchi reached 200,000 tons last year worth 120 billion won ($108.5 million). Chinese kimchi costs just one fifth what Korean-made kimchi costs. We never imagined a centuries-old dish so customized to our taste could be imitated so easily. We can’t deny the fact now: 90 percent of the kimchi served in large restaurants or cafeterias in expressway rest areas comes from China.

Our status as a unique culture is under threat. People eat Chinese kimchi without knowing because they can’t determine the origin of the product due to slack labeling. Import prices of kimchi will come down further once the free trade pact with China takes effect. Ingredients such as Napa cabbage have been excluded from the tariff-free list under that agreement, but local suppliers nevertheless will be hurt once cheap Chinese imports flood in.

We have to protect and grow the kimchi industry as part of our unique cultural heritage, something that even Unesco has recognized. Kimchi dishes come in various shapes and tastes. Each region maintains idiosyncratic recipes for kimchi. Kimchi can be from a variety of green and white plants and roots, not just the most well-known Napa cabbage. Other ingredients include Korean lettuces, cucumbers, young radishes and chives. Various tastes can be amplified through adding fruits and other healthy foods.

We should toughen labeling guidelines and raise the standards of kimchi as a fermented health food. Quality must be guarded to defeat cheap Chinese imports. We must accelerate overseas sales through the sales and marketing networks of large companies so that small and mid-sized producers can counterattack by selling their own products in the colossal Chinese market. The advance of the agriculture industry should be based on a grand partnership with smaller players doing the producing and larger companies doing the distribution.

The recent kimjang event that I attended was held to help needy people. South Korea’s ratio of old people living alone is among the highest in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Of 5.8 million people aged 65 or older, 300,000 people live alone without any support. When including the families living in extreme poverty, there are too many among us that live in hard conditions. We can bring a little warmth to their cold wintry days through the gift of kimchi.

The event recreated a communal tradition of our farming culture that was based on cooperation and sharing. Producing and delivering thousands of organic Napa cabbages for the event, people working together to salt the cabbages and coming up with the right seasonings to deliver a special treat to poor neighbors is indeed the best possible communal cooperation. This annual event, which the company has been sponsoring for 18 years, can build social unity. I hope younger people and teens participate in such events so that they can learn the spirit of community service and sharing. The value of sharing can be learned and, yes, shared.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff. JoongAng Ilbo, Nov. 28, Page 31

*The author is the chairman of the National Commission for Corporate Partnership and professor emeritus at the Chung-Ang University Graduate School of International Studies.

by Ahn Choong-yong

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