I don't need a Nobel Prize.
Stopping the situtation in North Korea
is much more urgent.
Soon-Kwon Kim is using cornBy Helen Altonn
to try to bring the Koreas together
Soon-Kwon Kim offered at various times to cut off fingers, go to prison or even die if his controversial methods of fighting crop diseases and increasing corn yields failed.
The University of Hawaii alumnus still is alive, free and has all his fingers after proving naysayers wrong.
Known internationally as the "father of maize" or the "corn chief," Kim was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and Nobel Physiology Prize for 1992 and 1993, and again for 1996.
"I don't need a Nobel Prize," he said. "Stopping the situation (starvation) in North Korea is much more urgent."
A distinguished professor at Kyungpook National University in Taegu, South Korea, Kim was here last week to receive the 1997 outstanding alumnus award from the UH College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources.
He's going to North Korea to promote peace and reunification with South Korea through corn.
He has advised South Korea to give about 1 million tons of maize to North Korea -- half a million tons as a loan, the other half as a gift. "The economy must be improved before reunification," he said.
But South Korea only wants to give 100,000 tons, which won't solve the problems, he said.
He wants to make North Korea a corn exporter, noting South Korea is the world's second-largest corn importer. He proposes developing a supercorn for North Korea and teaching scientists how to raise it, as he did in South Korea, Africa and other places.
Kim said he owes his achievements to the U.S. government for enabling him to study at the University of Hawaii, University of Illinois and Illinois Foundation Seed Inc. through the East-West Center Scholarship Program.
He experimented with disease-resistant corn and hybrid varieties at UH's Waimanalo station, working with horticulturist James Brewbaker.
He found ways to control two parasitic weeds, Striga and Orobanche, that cause billions of dollars worldwide in crop losses.
Scientists have searched more than a century for ways to combat the weed pests, using chemicals or single genes for resistance, Kim said.
Growing up in a poor farming family, he said he saw people die from using toxic chemicals.
Conventional methods to kill the weeds go against nature and create environmental problems, he said.
His technique protects both the crop and environment, he said.
It involves horizontal or multiple gene resistance. Each gene provides a low level of resistance, but collectively they overcome the disease.
Vertical resistance usually involves one gene giving very high levels of resistance, which generally is useful against only one strain of the disease and has a short lifetime.
Some infection may occur initially with polygenes, but resistance builds as the crop grows, Kim said.
"It's like kids. At first they are susceptible. As they grow, they're building up power to survive."
Kim said he was determined to develop high-yield, disease-resistant maize hybrids and try them in South Korea, although people said corn would never grow there.
"I said either I die or I'll learn the technology and transport it to Korea and the rest of the developing world," he said.
After getting his doctoral degree in 1974 from UH, he returned to South Korea for a $15 weekly salary. He took with him 16 tons of corn seed he had produced while doing field studies on Molokai -- 10 tons hybrid and six tons parental seed. He said he expected an airport welcome, but only his boss showed up, telling him, "No person in the whole world believes the hybrid program will succeed." Kim begged permission to plant some corn, promising, "If I fail, I'll go to jail for 10 years."
He was allowed to plant half the seed.
The rest was given to farmers, who thought it was no good because it was small, he said.
Kim said he slept nights in the cornfield and prayed to God to let his project succeed. "The net increase for farmers jumped three times," he said.
The United Nations Economic and Social Commission helped persuade other countries to try the hybrid corn, he said. And in 1979, he received a national medal.
He then joined the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture for 17 years, largely working with farmers in Africa, where Striga, a witchweed species, originated. He developed 100 varieties of Striga-resistant maize, saving an estimated $360 million a year.
The government of Nigeria conferred an honorary chieftaincy on Kim, calling him Maiyegun -- "one who improves the lot of the poor." He has received numerous other titles and research awards.