Lee Kuan Yew and Tongil rice

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Lee Kuan Yew and Tongil rice

Recently deceased former Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew was the last foreign leader that former President Park Chung Hee had met. On Oct. 16, 1979, Lee came to Korea for a four-day visit. While Park wished to take him to Posco, the Singaporean leader insisted he was only interested in seeing cultural sites in Gyeongju. So when Lee’s party landed at Pohang Airport, they were guided through Posco on the way to Gyeongju. However, Lee did not even glance at the steel mills.

What captured his eyes were the golden fields in autumn sunshine. He was impressed by Korean farms. The Korean diplomat escorting Lee told him about the Saemaeul Movement and Tongil rice. Lee was both envious and resolute. “It is impressive. When the farmers are full, that’s the end of Communist revolution.” At the Blue House banquet before he left, he said, “There wouldn’t have been today’s Korea if Park had only pursued immediate political interests.”

In his memoir, Lee wrote that he was impressed by Park’s strong will to make Korea prosperous. Five days later, he learned about the assassination of Park. He often said Park Chung Hee, Deng Xiaoping and Shigeru Yoshida were the three leaders of Asia. Deng is the Chinese leader who initiated reform and opening, and Yoshida is the Japanese prime minister who was the architect of postwar prosperity for his country.

Nowadays, many young people don’t finish their meal when they are full. But back in the ’70s, stepping into barley fields in February and picking grains were duties for students. Every grain counted. While Korea’s industrialization and democratization are considered miracles, Lee Kuan Yew may have been more insightful. Park Chung Hee’s green revolution saved the Korean people from half a millennium of hunger.

In the 1950s, the United States promoted the Green Revolution to counter the Red Revolution. The secret weapon that saved farmers around the world from absolute poverty was the dwarf wheat. It was a new variety with short and stiff steams that produced a high yield. Norman Borlaug, an American biologist in charge of research sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation, received the Nobel Peace Prize. Park Chung Hee fretted about the Green Revolution. He ordered the Korea Central Intelligence Agency to smuggle in new crop varieties to no avail. The father of Tongil (unification) rice was Prof. Heu Mun-hue of Seoul National University’s School of Agriculture, who studied at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines in 1964.

Heu paid attention to the dwarf Indica rice that had already been developed. Despite the high yield, the variety tasted different from Japonica, which suited the Korean palate. Hybridization of Indica and Japonica rice was considered impossible. In the 1920s, Japanese researchers concluded that hybridization would produce sterility. However, Heu did not give up. He successfully hybridized dwarf Indica with some mutated seeds from hybridization of Indica and Japonica after hundreds of tests.

Park Chung Hee pushed for the Tongil rice. He counted the grains on Tongil rice plants in the rice fields of Gimje, North Jeolla. Each plant yielded more than 140 grains, a drastic improvement from 80-90 in the conventional variety. He was so happy that day he had several drinks. Thanks to Tongil rice, rice production increased by more than 50 percent, and Korea became self-sufficient. The so-called “barley hump” - the lean season before the rice and corn harvest in the summer - ended. Two months before Heu died, he was inducted into the Hall of Honor for Scientists and Engineers in 2010.

Moon Chang-keuk, who had been nominated to be prime minister but withdrew his name, wrote in his book, “Reading History,” “For a community to enjoy prosperity, it must remember the ordeals of the past rather than the glories. Passover marks the emancipation from slavery in ancient Egypt, and the Jewish people celebrate by getting together and sharing flat, unleavened bread and bitter herbs to remember the suffering.”

Lee Kuan Yew’s passing has been reported around the world. It’s been a long time since Tongil rice was cultivated. Now, we have the luxury of discussing free school meals and organic produce. Some people prefer barley over white rice - not because of price but for health. How about we gather around over a meal made of Tongil rice to remember the painful past and enjoy prosperity?

JoongAng Ilbo, Mar. 24, Page 30

*The author is the chief editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Lee Chul-ho

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