South Koreans say no US beef, political ramifications heightened

May 19, 2008

Protestors gathered Friday night in various cities across South Korea to denounce their government’s decision to ease restrictions on U.S. beef amid widespread fears the meat could be contaminated with mad cow disease.

Just when President Lee Myung-bak seemed to have overcome every obstacle on the way to strengthening ties with the United States, tens of thousands of young Koreans in recent days have been hitting the streets of downtown Seoul to protest the deal for South Korea to resume imports of US beef.

The outpouring has so alarmed authorities that the police have taken the unusual step of banning candlelit vigils that have become a motif of Korean protests ever since crowds swarmed into central Seoul in late 2002 after the deaths of two schoolgirls crushed by a US army armored vehicle during a military exercise north of the capital.

The ban on vigils, though, may elicit still more protests, legal or not, from organizers of the anti-beef rallies.

“People are feeling a sense of crisis about what they eat,” anti-beef zealot Kim Jin-il told Korean journalists. “If the government tries to forcefully ban their rallies, the protest will become even fiercer.”

The protest gained in intensity after Munwha Broadcasting Company carried a program showing some of the horrors of beef slaughter in the US and bloggers joined the crusade. Opposition politicians have seized on the issue, denouncing the cozy relationship between Lee and President George W Bush, as seen in their recent Camp David summit, and the US-Korea free trade agreement that farmers in South Korea passionately oppose.

Agriculture Minister Chung Woon-chun did not seem to have helped matters by pronouncing US beef “safe to eat” and declaring claims the food could be deadly were “groundless.”

His mistake may have been to say the danger of catching “mad cow” disease was “extremely slim.” The inference, said a demonstrator, was that, yes, you really did have a “slim chance” of dying from American beef.

One compelling argument for US beef is that Australian and New Zealand beef is often cheaper than the beef produced in South Korea and an onslaught would drive prices further down. The obverse of that argument, of course, is that farmers fear the competition.

The beef agreement makes the perfect tool for activists who oppose the free trade agreement (FTA) laboriously hammered out in one-and-a-half years of negotiations. Foes of the agreement see demonstrations against the beef deal as a device for persuading South Korea’s National Assembly to delay ratifying the FTA – or to vote against it when it comes up for decision.

Opposition to the FTA reflects the longstanding alliance between farmers, concerned that the agreement will jeopardize their incomes, and leftists who see it as an easy pretext for pillorying the US-Korean relationship. No argument will convince them that the FTA is likely to bring far more income into South Korea than is possible while tariffs and quotas hold down US imports into Korea and exports from Korea to the US.

The beef issue appeared to have been on its way to settlement more than a year ago when Seoul agreed on the import of bone-free beef. X-rays, however, revealed bone chips lodged in the first few shipments, which were sent back to the US.

Under the agreement, reached in the hours before Lee met Bush at Camp David last month, the US may send T-bones and ribs, boned staples of the beef diet of Koreans. The agreement also permits the import of beef from cows that were more than 30 months old at the time they were slaughtered, a category that was previously banned.

The activists may be sure that a breakdown in the US-Korean beef deal will mean the end of the FTA. The FTA will be a hard sell in an American election year in which the leading Democratic Party candidates, Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, have said they will vote against the FTA in deference to fears of layoffs in hard-pressed US industries.

All hope of ratification of the FTA by the US Congress, as Koreans have been told repeatedly, would vanish if US beef is banned by South Korea.

Failure to ratify the agreement would have wide repercussions. The US would stick to its promise not to reduce the number of US troops stationed in South Korea below the current level of 28,000 or so, but talks on other issues, including transfer of operational military control in war time, would be strained.

At the same time, the Lee government would lose support at home on efforts at economic reform and also, possibly, for its firm line toward North Korea, including demands for “reciprocity”, complete abandonment by the North of its nuclear program and “verification” of whatever the North claims to have done about it.

The great debate over food imports, meanwhile, suggests the richness of the diet of a people accustomed to overflowing food markets at relatively low prices. You can buy an all-around healthy meal, with vegetables and fresh meat and fish, for the same prices you pay for fast food in the US, where visitors go miles to find restaurants that serve equally healthy food at far higher prices. Koreans tend to forget how the food available in the South compares with that in North Korea, where small handouts of donated rice provide a lifeline for millions on the verge of starvation.

Some have suggested, however, that US beef exporters divert their products to North Korea as donations, just as the late Hyundai founder, Chung Ju-yung, led 1,000 cows across the demilitarized zone from South to North Korea 10 years ago. Just what happened to those cows remains mystery, but the widespread suspicion is they were slaughtered for beef for the North’s elite.

No one doubts, however, that North Korea would welcome handouts from anywhere, while activists lead protests against US beef in hopes of reviving anti-American sentiments to satiate the appetite of the only overweight North Korean, Dear Leader Kim Jong-il.

See also: Pressure on SKorea to lift beef ban, Beef with E. coli slips through “cook only” loophole


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