What the minister must do now

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What the minister must do now

How did Kim Jae-soo, self-described as having come from the bottom of Korean society mockingly stratified as “dirt-spoon class,” end up at the top of the pecking order in the government to become the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs?

I sniffed around to investigate his trajectory and reputation. He was commonly referred as someone who is well-wired. To exaggerate a little, he could know nearly half of the government and public-sector officials, educators, and journalists subject to the new antigraft act dubbed as the Kim Young-ran Law. He is said to have a knack of introducing himself to a stranger and instantly making his or her acquaintance. He is also said to be persistent at getting work done. Some call him audacious and flattering. Five years heading a food-related public institution placed him at the top seat in charge of food affairs.

He should feel indebted and uncomfortable seeing the showdown between the president and the opposition and political stalemate over him. The president vetoed the opposition-led motion to unseat Kim whose nomination in early September had been questioned during a confirmation hearing over a number of suspicious track records, and the ruling party in support of her decision boycotted legislative activities. He should be feeling regretful to the president and people for being pointed as the culprit for the political impasse. Yet he maintains that he won’t resign. Since he is so determined, we beseech him to do the right job to restore his personal reputation and compensate for the controversy he had caused.

The agriculture ministry began to oversee food policies eight years ago when the food department was created. The country needed a framework on food affairs after the free trade agreement was signed with the United States in 2007. To help the local producers better compete with imports, the ministry came up with the idea of creating a cluster on the food industry. It envisioned a food complex that would oversee everything from research and development, manufacturing, processing, to distribution, packaging and sales. Iksan in North Jeolla was chosen in 2008 to house the complex. The food park had a goal of generating sales of 15 trillion won ($13.7 billion), exports of $3 billion, and 22,000 jobs by 2020. It hoped to draw 150 companies and 10 research institutions. The work took three years, and as of June, just eight small or midsize enterprises have offered to join the project.

The Iksan food park was modeled after Oresund, a strait forming the Danish-Swedish border. The Oresund Bridge connects the Danish capital Copenhagen and the Swedish port city of Malmo. In 1989, Denmark announced a development project dubbed Strategy 1992 Network Plan and invested $25 million a year to foster a network of food industries with research institutes. The Swedish government pitched in and connected its food industries up to the Oresund Bridge. It pledged 2.5 million euros over a decade.

The collaboration of the two governments bore fruit. Fourteen universities spread out around the region became one. Food studies, lectures and research were all possible in a single compound. Multinational food names like Unilever of the Netherlands and Nestle of Switzerland set up research centers there. Three decades later, the area is one of the world’s three major hubs for food industries. It generates an annual revenue of $68 billion, roughly a fourth of the Danish gross domestic product and 250,000 jobs.

Kim was the planning chief at the time the food ministry brooded on the Iksan project. He should use some of that experience. He must use his charm and networking skills to draw academies and enterprises to Iksan. The global food market is estimated at $5.3 trillion, more than triple the $1.7 trillion global auto market. The Chinese market alone is worth 1,000 trillion won. If the industry flourishes, the food ministry could actually be more powerful than the industry ministry.

He must make sure setbacks like the one with LG CNS do not recur. LG envisioned building a so-called smart farm in a huge mass of Saemangeum reclaimed land. It drew 380 billion won in foreign capital. The group tried to avoid the clash with residents that upset the Dongbu farm project. It promised support and reward. It was faithful to the development deal among the government, enterprises and farmers. But the endeavors were of no use. LG last week yielded to farmers’ strong protests and pulled out of the project.

The ministry kept profit low, fearing it could anger the farmers more for siding with a large company. With such shortsighted and cowardly approach, the country could never build a food dynasty. Strong leadership is necessary. The minister must establish a living successful case of collaboration between farmers and enterprises. It is the only way for Kim to prove his critics wrong and that he was right to cling to his seat, despite a messy start.

JoongAng Ilbo, Sept. 29, Page 34

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

Yi Jung-jae
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