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After Seoul lifts ban on U.S. beef, protesters erupt

Opposition says the government declares ‘war against the people’  PLAY AUDIO

May 30,2008
Following Agriculture Minister Chung Woon-chun’s announcement of the end of the ban on U.S. beef, mothers marched on downtown Seoul in protest. Some pushed their tots in strollers yesterday afternoon. An alliance of 1,700 civic groups planned a massive candlelight vigil near City Hall yesterday as public anger reached a new peak. [NEWSIS]
Despite snowballing public anger and dire threats by opposition lawmakers, the Lee Myung-bak administration yesterday officially lifted its ban on imports of U.S. beef, allowing the meat to hit retail stores after an eight-month suspension.

Agriculture Minister Chung Woon-chun also announced new quarantine restrictions that effectively open the Korean market to almost all types of the meat from the United States. Seoul and Washington agreed to the action on April 18.

The announcement was televised live nationwide at 4 p.m.

The announcement stoked public anger because of fear of mad cow disease. An alliance of about 1,700 civic groups, the People’s Conference Against Mad Cow Disease, quickly attacked the decision, calling it “a declaration of war against the people.”

A massive candlelight vigil, expected to be attended by at least 10,000, started near City Hall at 7 p.m. About 100 mothers, some pushing their children in strollers, appeared on the streets, leading marches by the protesters in the evening. Soon, 9,000 riot police filled the streets.

More rallies are planned in at least 12 cities nationwide.

“The situation did not end with the announcement,” conference leaders said in a press release. “A whole new fight begins now!”

Most cuts of U.S. beef - except specified risk materials such as brains ? will be imported, regardless of the age of the cattle. The change is a significant step back from the initial standard that only let in imports of boneless beef from cattle under 30 months old.

The announcement was the final administrative step needed to resume the U.S. beef imports.

The eased inspection rules will take effect as soon as they are published in a government journal, tentatively scheduled for June 3.

“We are overwhelmed with shame that people are troubled by the resumption of beef imports,” Chung said. “The administration has deeply thought about the people’s concerns and how to relieve their worries. As a result, we have stipulated that Korea can stop the beef imports if mad cow disease breaks out in the United States. And standards governing specified risk materials have been adjusted to match those used for U.S. beef consumed domestically.

“Korean inspectors will be sent to the United States to check on the conditions of the workplaces related to the imports,” Chung said, promising to protect Korea from the disease through careful monitoring.

To ease concerns of Korean livestock farmers, Chung proposed lowering the interest rate for state loans and increasing government subsidies from 1 trillion won ($972 million) to 1.5 trillion won.

Farmer groups held rallies outside the Agriculture Ministry yesterday afternoon. Four leading activists, including the head of the Korean Peasants League, Han Do-suk, were arrested by the police.

Tensions reached a new peak as members of a militant umbrella group gathered in front of a cold storage facility in Yongin, Gyeonggi, where beef shipments from the United States are kept. They condemned the resumption of U.S. beef imports. Riot police were dispatched to cold storage warehouses to prevent any illegal actions by the protesters.

“Rather than protecting the people’s right to health, the Lee administration chose to protect the profits of the U.S. livestock industry,” said the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, one of the nation’s two umbrella labor groups. About 100 members, including KCTU head Lee Suk-haeng, attended the protest.

“Joining hands with the people, we will begin an all-out fight against the government,” they said.

The KCTU said it will hold rallies at 2 p.m. today in front of all 14 cold storage warehouses nationwide where U.S. beef is stored, adding that it will block transportation of the meat starting June 3.

“We will act peacefully to stop the transport of U.S. beef,” said KCTU spokeswoman Wu Mun-suk. “If the shipments go out, we will disclose their travel routes.”

Korean truckers also said they will refuse to move beef imported from the United States. The Korea Cargo Transport Workers Union made the announcement yesterday that its members will boycott such shipment orders.

About 5,300 tons of U.S. beef shipments are currently stored in the warehouses and the port of Busan, and they are expected to hit the market in a few days.

Discount chains are reserved about the sale of U.S. beef. E-Mart, Lotte Mart and Homeplus said they will begin sales only after the public reaches a consensus on the safety of the meat.

The United Democratic Party threatened to fight the government’s decision.

“We will give a warning in simple words,” said Sohn Hak-kyu, chairman of the UDP.

“We, the United Democratic Party, will have no choice but to make an important decision,” he added.



By Ser Myo-ja Staff Reporter [myoja@joongang.co.kr]



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