[Outlook]Battling the backlashWhen the president and his entourage flew to Washington, full of confidence and pride, they never could have imagined that the positive results of the trip would be crushed amid a public frenzy over mad cow disease. They were excited to show how different they were from the old administration and to boast that the White House and U.S. companies showed them unusual hospitality. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have worn such defiant expressions on their faces when they were coming home, after giving up so easily on such a sensitive issue without any conditions attached.
Even before the farmers showed their anger, the fury began somewhere else. TV stations aired unpleasant scenes of cows collapsing, making the people feel sick. In the end, tens of thousands of people stampeded to central Seoul, like furious bulls. Unusually fine spring days were ruined by an outpouring of public ire against the administration. The Blue House and the administration were excited over their first overseas mission, but they came back to severe criticism.
As has been revealed, there are few scientific grounds for the mad cow disease panic. The fear of the disease is the main issue behind the chaos, rather than how the whole incident began in the first place. Who spread these groundless, bizarre stories about mad cow disease and who encouraged the massive rallies are secondary issues. The main point is that the administration opened our beef market without consulting with the National Assembly or the ruling party beforehand. This would have been understandable, as that is the administration’s right, but only if it were done properly.
The Roh Moo-hyun administration gave up its nationalist identity to pursue a free trade agreement with the United States. But it didn’t roll over on the minimum degree of quarantine rights, such as regulations on the ages of butchered animals, which parts of the animals are acceptable, hygiene and whether butchered cows were fed protein-based products. That is because worrying about possible threats to public health, even if the risks are very low, is the government’s duty, and the former administration was not lax nor ignorant about the opinions and feelings of the people. This time, however, the public is stunned to see that corporate principles came first and the principles of the nation have been lost. Why and how could this happen?
The incumbent administration must have planned to remove a hindrance to U.S. Congress ratification of the Korea-U.S. free trade accord and it also probably needed a gift to bring to Camp David. The Korean government must have believed that there was little potential harm in fully opening our beef market, as the Organization for Animal Health has approved the safety of U.S. beef. An image of the vast market in the United States must have flickered, rather than possible damage to Korean farmers. But one wonders why the government didn’t think about just hinting at opening our beef market and using it as a useful card during negotiations in June, and why Korea has to become a leading country in fully opening its beef market, along with Canada. Washington is pushing Japan and Taiwan, using Korea’s case as an example.
The key members of the administration have doctoral degrees from U.S. universities and they are experts on the United States. They must know that U.S. negotiators are extremely cold and never make the slightest change to documents once they are signed. But as the Korean government has left no possible room to make objections or amendments, if not necessarily renegotiations, it has only itself to blame for the candlelit rallies.
The former administration was too stubborn even though it didn’t have much to fall back on. The incumbent administration has given an impression from early on of being submissive. For the past five years, the emphasis on self-reliance in diplomacy was the key word in public debates. It is worrisome if for the next five years the main topic of discussions will be whether Korea has been degraded to a country that kowtows to a stronger one.
When the Joseon government, a complete novice in diplomacy, signed a treaty with the United States 129 years ago, it ensured the possibility of renegotiations. Article 12 of the treaty with the United States stipulated that in five years, when both countries became more familiar with each other’s language, they were to discuss the treaty in accordance with international law and trade regulations, and renegotiate the rules. Shin Heon, Joseon’s top negotiator, was a senior military official who served as commander of the capital garrison and Kim Hong-jip, the assistant negotiator, was a 40-year-old civil servant.
But if it is true that the government didn’t make any attempt to save face over beef imports, the people will turn a deaf ear to whatever excuses the prime minister and ministers may make. The government can’t make requirements that are against customs when the ratification of the free trade agreement nears. It also has difficulties in announcing the beginning of U.S. beef imports to an angry public.
The person who created the problems should solve them. It is time for the president to step up. He should say that it was a big decision for the national interest and seek the people’s understanding by drawing up trustworthy measures. More importantly, he should make the public believe that he has learned that the people he is dealing with are not his employees, but the citizens of this nation.
*The writer is a professor of sociology at Seoul National University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Song Ho-keun