[Outlook]Beefy questions

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[Outlook]Beefy questions

People are losing sleep night after night. What went wrong? It is hard to understand why it has to be like this. Why is the entire country shaking over methods of importing U.S. beef? The people are talking about the resignation of the administration which recently took office. Teenagers, young moms with babies in prams and elderly citizens in their 70s are joining the protests. Unbelievably, a special counterterrorism unit was dispatched to contain protesters. The people must be possessed by something.

As the president said, consumers decide whether or not to buy a certain product. When this concept is applied to international trade, the importing countries make the decision. Therefore, it is natural that importers, not exporters, decide on safety standards and demand exporters meet those standards. If the exporters see that they can still make a profit when they meet the required standards, they will export. Otherwise, they won’t.

The U.S. National Cattlemen’s Beef Association won’t give up on exporting beef to Korea if Korea becomes the biggest importer of U.S. beef as the association expects. Thus, it is only natural that they respect Korea’s opinions about import regulations. American beef is divided into eight different quality categories before it comes into the marketplace. Beef from cattle 30 months old or older is ranked eighth. What is the exact reason we have to import all eight grades of U.S. beef?

Korea halted imports of U.S. beef when a case of mad cow disease occurred in the United States in December 2003. In March 2006, earlier import and hygiene regulations were applied and beef imports were resumed. Thus, easing import and hygiene regulations is a very sensitive issue.

What kind of government would let dangerous food be consumed by the population? And who would eat unsafe food? Why would people risk their health, or even their lives? Banning imports of food items that pose a threat to even one person is the right thing to do. It is inhumane to take chances with people’s lives. Of course, eliminating all potential dangers is impossible. But we can reduce the known dangers as much as possible, and such efforts should be made.

But the government didn’t do so. What was the reason? Was it because of the ratification of the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement?

The materials that the Ministry for Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries submitted to the presidential transition team on Jan. 4 are said to have stated that the revision of import and hygiene regulations on U.S. beef should not be linked to the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement, but should be examined so as to guarantee food safety for the people. That was the consistent stance of Korea.

On the same day, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade said that the revision of import and hygiene regulations would be linked to submission of the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement for ratification by the U.S. Congress.

But this doesn’t sound persuasive, because the revision of import and hygiene standards and the ratification of the trade deal are not a package deal, and Korea seemed to want to hurriedly ratify the FTA without waiting for the United States to ratify the deal.

Further, setting import and hygiene regulations for food imports must be a task for the Ministry for Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, not the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

The entire issue seems quite simple in a way. But how could the situation come this far? The core of the problem is probably that the leaders of the country failed to understand how government institutions function and how state decisions should be made. A country doesn’t think or act on its own, like people do. Thus, a country needs institutions to make decisions and implement them. Such institutions must function in accordance with the Constitution and the law.

The president is not an exception, and nor are the prime minister or any of the ministers. All government institutions have a status designated by the Constitution and the law. They must execute their rights endowed by the Constitution and the law in the way that is stipulated under those guidelines. Their rights also must be clearly spelled out.

Recent incidents reveal bad, old customs of an emperor-like president that haven’t disappeared even after the country was democratized.

If the president and government officials want to protect democracy, the result of the people’s blood, sweat and tears, they must think seriously about what the Constitution and the law tell them to do.

*The writer is a professor of law at Korea University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Kim Sun-taek
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