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Beef dispute keeps heating up

Opposition parties want import pact to be put on hold

May 09,2008
Officials at the National Veterinary Research Quarantine Service explain how to examine the imported beef through X-ray machines yesterday as the Grand National Party lawmakers visited the service for a demonstration. [YONHAP]
The political dispute over the resumption of all U.S. beef imports escalated further yesterday despite the government’s vow to stop imports when a mad cow disease breaks out in the United States.
Three opposition parties jointly urged the government to fire Agriculture Minister Chung Woon-chun and put the deal on hold. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Han Seung-soo and Deputy Trade Minister Lee Hye-min said yesterday that the government will try to revise the deal to “ease the Korean public’s concerns if there is a significant change in the situation.”
That concern centered on allowing the United States to continue exporting beef even if there’s a mad cow disease outbreak there.
Floor leaders of the opposition United Democratic Party, the Democratic Labor Party and the Liberty Forward Party held a joint meeting yesterday. Afterwards they threatened to pass a resolution urging renegotiation of the trade pact, according to the Liberty Forward Party spokeswoman Park Sun-young.
The three parties will also seek a National Assembly special investigation of the government’s negotiations on the beef deal, Park said.
“The public hearing on May 7 failed to clear away suspicions about the deal and to find out who should be held accountable. So an investigation is inevitable,” said Park.
Korea, once the fifth largest importer of U.S. beef, had earlier announced it would resume beef imports regardless of the cattle’s age and the cut of meat. Meat close to neural tissue is more likely to harbor prions, misshaped proteins believed to be the causative agents in mad cow disease.
According to the agreement, even if another outbreak of mad cow disease is found in America, U.S. beef imports could be banned only after the World Organization for Animal Health, or OIE, declares U.S. beef unsafe, an action that may take several months. The government agreed to renegotiate this point earlier in the week. But opposition parties are also demanding that beef parts more prone to mad cow disease contamination such as the brain, the spinal cord and the skull be banned from local markets unless the exporters identify the cattle’s age on the labels. Older cattle born before the American food ban of certain proteins in the U.S. are thought to be more likely to harbor the misshaped prions.
“The minister’s official announcement of the deal, scheduled for May 15, should be put on hold for good, otherwise we will consider various legal measures,” said the UDP floor leader Kim Hyo-seuk. Liberty Forward Party Chairman Lee Hoi-chang also entered the fray.
“The government said on May 7 it was willing to risk a trade dispute. If the government has the courage to say that, it has to act now to renegotiate the deal,” he said in an interview with local radio station PBC.
Amid the escalating furor over the beef deal, Prime Minister Han yesterday emphasized that Seoul will ban U.S. beef “if a possible mad cow disease outbreak in the U.S. in the future is deemed to pose a threat to the public health.” His comment was in line with Agriculture Minister Chung’s remark a day earlier that he would risk a trade dispute with U.S. in order to immediately ban the U.S. beef imports upon a possible disease outbreak in the country. The Deputy Trade Minister also reaffirmed that Seoul is ready to call for a revision in the agreement with Washington, citing a rule of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, allowing nations to impose stronger requirements on imported goods when taking such a measure is “necessary to protect human, animal, or plant health.”
“Such rules stated are intrinsically based on all bilateral agreements. So even if the rules are not directly stated in the agreement, both parties have the right to adopt the rules,” he said in a briefing.
The government’s recently changed stance could provoke some U.S. lawmakers who have complained about the trade deal.


By Jung Ha-won Staff Reporter [hawon@jooongang.co.kr]


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