Bring on the beefFor the first time in six months, talks addressing the import of U.S. beef have been held in the government office in Gwacheon, south of Seoul. Imports of beef from the United States were halted when bone chips were found in a series of shipments, meaning they failed to meet Korea’s hygiene regulations on imports.
Washington demands that Korea resume all imports of U.S. beef, regardless of the age or part of the butchered animal. Korea, however, wants to gradually increase the volume of beef imports from the United States.
The current situation can simplistically be described as Washington leaning on the outside of the door to the Korean beef market, while Seoul struggles to keep it shut. However, the issue should not be approached from such a narrow perspective.
First of all, the Korean beef market is already open and imports of beef from the United States have only been halted temporarily, as mad cow disease occurred in the United States. Korea stopped importing beef from the United States to protect the health of Koreans until the risk of mad cow disease disappears.
In May of last year, the World Organization of Animal Health categorized the United State as a risk-controlled country in terms of mad cow disease.
As the risk of harm to the health of Koreans is gone, so is the reason to stop importing U.S. beef.
But local authorities have still banned the imports, citing bone chips found in U.S. beef as the reason. This move can easily be misunderstood as an intention to once again close the Korean beef market. It doesn’t make much sense to maintain that U.S. beef may be a health risk for Koreans while it is being consumed in the United States and Japan, which each have strict hygiene regulations.
The U.S. beef issue is also directly connected to ratification of the free trade agreement between Seoul and Washington, which was signed last year. It is hard to expect the trade pact to be ratified unless the beef import issue is resolved.
In the meantime, the U.S. House of Representatives refused to ratify a free trade agreement with Colombia, casting a shadow over the similar deal with Seoul.
The bilateral trade pact between Korea and the United States will serve as a breakthrough for Korea’s economy. The Korean government must remove this obstacle to the deal by resolving the U.S. beef import issue before President Lee Myung-bak visits the United States.