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Damir Sagoli/Reuters/Newscom

Food fight

A Korean refrigerator speaks to the falsehoods surrounding famine

Issue: "2011 Daniel of the Year," Dec. 17, 2011

This time of year my refrigerator hums, happily I imagine, with the comings and goings of harvest and feasting-roasts and leftover gravies, cooked squash and potatoes, the summer peppers not eaten by grubs, and the last of the lettuces. How can my family receive such bounty while others go poor and hungry? It's a complex question.

Take my refrigerator, a sturdy 22-cubic-foot model made by the LG Corporation of South Korea. The reason I'm able to own an appliance from the Korean Peninsula is that a man named Koo In-Hwoi in 1947 was intrepid enough to found a company called Lak-Hui Chemical Industrial Corp., then to get into plastics, then to build the country's first radio, and ultimately to merge the plastics side (by then called "Lucky") with the electronics side (called Goldstar) into what is today the second-largest conglomerate in South Korea after Samsung.

The reason Koo In-Hwoi was successful is that he formed his company under the auspices of the provisional government in the southern half of the Korean Peninsula, a region under U.S. control after the defeat of the Japanese in World War II-and not the northern half under control of the Soviet Union.

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In that environment LG grew into five global divisions that today earn more than $1.1 billion in net annual income and employ more than 82,000 people. It remains a family-owned company run by Koo's grandson Koo Bon-Moo. LG has remained notably scandal free. In 2002 the grandson praised the generations before him, saying on his parents' 60th wedding anniversary, "My parents set an example to married couples, which is a precious legacy to be continued."

Corporate and familial success in South Korea feed a country with per capita GDP in 2011 of $30,000 (rising from 1960's per capita GDP of $177)-and an unemployment rate of 3.6 percent. North Korea, with a nearly identical culture and history until communist takeover in 1945, by contrast has a per capita GDP of maybe $1,800. And needless to say, there are no global conglomerates employing over 80,000 people and making it possible for others halfway around the world to eat and live well. What a difference 65 years of centralization makes.

Despite over a decade of massive international food aid, and reports that this year's grain harvest in North Korea is up, more and more children are starving: In October the UN's top humanitarian official, Valerie Amos, reported that one-third of North Korean children under age 5 are malnourished. Vitit Muntarbhorn, UN special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, went so far in his final report as to call the long-term starvation of millions of North Koreans, together with other human-rights abuses, a form of genocide.

Viewed from the Korean Peninsula, the causes of famine and gross impoverishment couldn't be clearer. Yet the prevailing wisdom, not to mention the so-called 99 percenters, wants to indict free markets and a lack of centralization.

A report by Reuters blames North Korea's food shortages on "a string of natural disasters and sanctions imposed on its nuclear and missile programs."

David Beckmann of Bread for the World, speaking last month to a gathering of the Methodist General Board of Church and Society, insisted, "We've got to get our government to do its part. We can't foodbank our way out of hunger." He complained of "a very difficult Congress" made up of freshmen who "all are conservative and some not well-informed," and concluded, "More people who experience God as a loving presence are more likely to support food stamps."

Alleviating the world's hunger hot spots doesn't begin at my refrigerator door, or with support for food stamps. For us in the West, it begins somewhere in Ezekiel 16, where the guilt of Jerusalem, the holiest of cities, is compared alongside the guilt of Sodom: "She and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy." Let's lay aside pride and excess long enough to marvel at the remarkable ways to deliver and keep food around the world, to examine why systems fail, and to resolve to reject falsehoods disguised as fix-its.

Email: mbelz@worldmag.com

Mindy Belz
Mindy Belz

Mindy travels to the far corners of the globe as the editor of WORLD and lives with her family in the mountains of western North Carolina. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.

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