A 'Johnny Cornseed' Plants Ideas to Help Feed North Korea

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

As a boy, Kim Soon-kwon dreamed of helping poor farm families like his grow food more easily and in more abundance.

His dream took him to America to study corn science, and then to his development of a "supercorn" hybrid seed. His work helped triple corn yields for South Korean farmers in the 1970s. It's also helped feed millions in Africa. where he lived for years. He's even been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

But in January, his dream took a homeward turn again.

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This "Johnny Cornseed" was able to visit North Korea - unlike most others in the South - to help in developing a special hybrid corn for the North's conditions, with the hope it could reverse a widespread famine in the closed, Communist-run nation.

As he walked over clods of frozen earth and dried corn stalks on desolate brown hills, surveying farms with North Korean agriculture scientists, Mr. Kim says he saw a grim picture.

While he didn't see people starving, he could "scientifically guess" that the North needs lots of food. It "was much worse that I expected," Kim says.

North Korea claims it will run out of food in a matter of weeks, but rarely lets foreigners assess the situation. Some aid groups estimate that over 3 million people have died from famine in the last two years. It is unprecedented that the proud and obstreperous North Koreans have asked the international community for food aid. But nothing less than an overhaul of its agricultural system is needed if aid isn't simply thrown into a black hole, say observers.

Now a professor of plant hybridization at Kyongpook University in Taegu, Kim is the most prominent of several South Koreans spearheading recent agricultural cooperation with North Korea.

In Kim's lab in Taegu, some 200 North Korean corn seeds are taking root. Collected during his visit, Kim will interbreed the strains with varieties from the North American Corn Belt where environmental conditions are similar. On return visits to North Korea he hopes to establish research stations in 10 places and offer assistance and advice. But North Korean scientists will do most of the work. Kim has great faith in them. Their head researcher, a Mr. Lee, spent time in Africa also. "He's a very smart fellow. I was very impressed," says Kim.

After his first visit, Kim has several suggestions for improving North Korean farming like focusing on corn and potatoes instead of rice, which doesn't grow as well so far north. Intercropping with legumes could help restore nutrients to overused soil, he says. Others helping the North's farms include a joint farming project in the isolated Rajin-Sonbong special economic zone. South Koreans will provide seeds and other inputs while the North Koreans provide the land and labor and the two sides split the crop.

The scientific breakthrough Kim is known for involves using multiple genes to protect crops from parasites and viruses.

In the past, scientists just concentrated on altering one gene to guarantee crop resistance. The results were impressive - 100 percent protection - but the effect did not last long. Pathogens quickly mutated and were able to attack crops again. Kim's method only gives 95 percent protection, but that is its virtue. If some pathogens are allowed to survive, there is less pressure for them to radically mutate.

Kim became a hero and went off to Africa where he spent 17 years at The International Institute of Tropical Agriculture in Nigeria. His hybrids have increased the incomes of poor farmers dramatically and saved $1.2 billion in crop losses in Africa alone. Nigeria's 50-Kobo coins are imprinted with hybrid maize and the government conferred a chieftancy on Kim out of appreciation.

While watching CNN, Kim learned of North Korea's food crisis and returned to help in 1995.

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