[FORUM]Beef dispute calls for actionDue to the mad cow disease outbreak two years ago, beef imports from the United States are banned in Korea, and the stockpile of American beef in Korea has greatly decreased. Although beef from other countries such as Australia is imported continuously, there are some concerns about whether it can stabilize market prices. The price of domestic beef has been fluctuating, and customers and livestock farmers are expressing opposite sentiments.
Restaurants, the major customers of beef, are complaining that it has become extremely difficult to maintain inexpensive menus. In one extreme case, a restaurant owner was arrested at the court immediately after he was tried on charges of falsely advertising that his restaurant was only selling domestically produced beef when he actually was using imported beef.
After the incident, restaurants are facing an even more difficult situation. Among the restaurant owners specializing in Korean barbecue, the beef trade negotiations between the United States and Korea have become a hot issue.
When the stockpile of U.S. beef in Korea is used up, the restaurant owners will have to use expensive domestic beef, and that will inevitably lead to a price hike. Sales have been slow, and when restaurants raise their prices, they’ll lose even more customers. That is why the government constantly monitors the stockpile of imported beef.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Seoul and Tokyo last month, and she showed a great deal of interest in the two countries’ resumption of beef imports from the United States. Her interest in that issue was as serious as Washington’s concerns on the North Korean nuclear crisis. Seoul and Tokyo both told Ms. Rice the same thing: They said they will take the necessary action when the safety of the U.S. beef has been proven scientifically.
South Korea and Japan are the two largest importers of U.S. beef. The U.S. Congress and livestock industry are reportedly lobbying aggressively to get imports back into Korea and Japan. If Seoul and Tokyo continue postponing the resumption of beef imports, the United States is indicating that it may take possible economic sanctions against Korea and Japan.
Under U.S. pressure, people are paying attention to Seoul and Tokyo’s diplomatic strategies. Both Korea and Japan made clear that their basic principle is protecting their citizens’ health through complete research on the safety of U.S. beef.
But Seoul and Tokyo diverge when it comes to the next step. The Japanese government said a food safety committee, formed by civilians, will determine when U.S. beef imports will resume. Because politics, foreign affairs and trade institutions have no control over the committee, it will make an independent decision, Tokyo claims.
But when you take a closer look at the committee, you can see that the government can still assert its influence over it. The prime minister has the right to appoint or replace members of the committee and can send out signals according to political decisions.
Tokyo is apparently using the same excuse for its justification for the history textbook issue. Whenever Japan’s textbooks were criticized for distorting and glossing over its military atrocities, the Japanese government said it has no right to intervene in the authorization of textbooks. Japan has established similar committees that can be used for dodging criticism. In contrast, Korea doesn’t even have a food safety committee.
Over the past 15 years, the U.S. policy on beef used to result in trade pressure on its trade partners, which was supported by the president. Between South Korea and Japan, the country that first decides to allow imports will largely curtail the negotiating power of the other country. If Korea follows Japan’s decision to lift the beef import ban, Korea’s negotiating power will be ineffective.
If Seoul justifies its decision to allow imports by saying that it had no other choice but to follow Tokyo, that will be an extremely lame excuse. Korea has always followed Japan’s actions in most trade disputes. That is an example of “do-nothingism.” Seoul simply lacks the will to take advantage of the U.S. policy on beef.
It is time to make a radical shift in our thinking. If we will have to lift the beef import ban eventually, we could employ a give-and-take policy promptly and stress the importance of a South Korea-U.S. alliance. If Seoul fails to make a timely decision, it will irritate Washington and lose the hearts of the domestic beef producers and customers at the same time.
It is time to make Korea’s presence felt clearly by making an independent decision on the beef trade negotiations.
* The writer is the editor-in-chief of the monthly publication NEXT. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Choi Chul-joo