Candle vigils become a Korean venting ground

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Candle vigils become a Korean venting ground

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Scenes of the recent protests in downtown Seoul. [JoongAng Ilbo]



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Scenes of the recent protests in downtown Seoul. [JoongAng Ilbo]

Small street protests over safety concerns about imported U.S. beef have acted as the catalyst for much larger protests that have paralyzed the Blue House and virtually halted implementation of President Lee Myung-bak’s policies.
Observers in Korea say the protests, which have now gone on for more than a month, have brought together a loose alliance including those who until recently had withheld complaints about the Lee administration.

“We have people genuinely concerned about food safety, but they are now joined by others. Some in opposition parties who are against the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement are trying to capitalize on the situation,” said Kim Yong-bok, a professor of politics at Kyungnam University. He points out that the failure by the Lee administration to devise a timely and correct response has only fueled the protests.

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“Sometimes, an acceptable explanation doesn’t work when the timing is off. You have people here who feel they have been ignored by the government and they have taken their frustration to the street,” the professor said.

Government efforts have not calmed the public. It hasn’t helped that the protests are coinciding with the anniversary of significant events in Korea’s democracy movement in the 1980s. This week also marks the anniversary of the deaths of two Korean middle school girls hit by a U.S. military vehicle, which sparked widespread anti-U.S. sentiment in 2002.

If anything, ill-prepared government officials have been their own worst enemies. Take for example Lee Sang-gil, a senior official in the Agricultural Ministry. When asked by lawmakers in a televised National Assembly hearing about who consumes U.S. beef from cows older than 30 months, Lee answered that underdeveloped nations and Americans in lower income brackets were the principal consumers.

Another government official suggested Koreans should change their habit of eating beef from cuts that are more likely to carry the protein that causes bovine spongiform encephalopathy, popularly known as mad cow disease. Then, President Lee’s brother implied that jobless people were swelling the protesters’ ranks.


Troubled history

After the first discovery of BSE in 2003 in the United States, the U.S. beef industry lost $2 billion in the following year alone.

South Korea was once the third-largest importer of U.S. beef before it imposed a ban at the end of 2003. The market was opened briefly last year for boneless U.S. beef from cattle less than 30 months old, but the discovery of bone fragments in beef shipments halted the imports again.

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In April, during President Lee Myung-bak’s visit to Washington, Seoul announced the resumption of all U.S. beef imports, including cuts for older cattle and bone-in beef. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced shortly after President Lee’s visit that it strengthened safeguards based on 1997 feed regulations. Brains and spinal cords from cattle 30 months of age and older can no longer be exported. However, the FDA said the ban wouldn’t be enforced for 12 months.

In the subsequent uproar the Lee administration caved in to public demands, asking Washington to halt the import of beef from cattle over 30 months old.

One U.S. diplomat in Korea summed up the issue this way: “To be honest, we were shocked that things would go this far and we have been asking ourselves, ‘What the hell is going on here?’” Speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the issue, the official added that “maybe it would have been better to announce the beef deal after President Lee’s visit to Washington.” The official expressed concern that the ongoing protests may lead to widespread anti-U.S. sentiment.

Korean government officials who have vivid memories of the anti-U.S. demonstrations in 2002 share these worries. Such public sentiment, some say, swept the liberal Roh Moo-hyun into the Blue House.

It does not help Lee now that there is a stark contrast in public perceptions about former President Roh and incumbent President Lee in relations with the United States.

During his election campaign, Roh had made a virtue of having never set foot on U.S. soil. His administration’s inter-Korean policy notably sought independence from Washington, a stance Lee is seen to have reversed.

For instance, in 2006 in the aftermath of a nuclear test by Pyongyang, Washington asked Seoul to consider joining the U.S.-led Proliferation Security Initiative, a global initiative aimed at stopping trade in weapons of mass destruction.

Fearful of agitating Pyongyang, the Unification Ministry turned down the request.

But with the Lee administration in the Blue House, the tone has changed. The once-powerful Unification Ministry has barely survived a consolidation of ministries and its role has been greatly diminished. Analysts and the media have described President Lee as leaning close to Washington after he took office, a stance that was considered as a positive for the economy. Nevertheless, his highly publicized visit to the United States, particularly the U.S. presidential retreat at Camp David ? Roh was never accorded such hospitality ? have now become a burden on the Lee administration.

While political experts have offered various opinions on the street rallies, for some the protests are a very simple matter.

Lee Ji-eun, 25, a graduate student at Ewha Womans University who identifies herself as a Grand National Party supporter, says her participation is not about ideology. “It’s about self-interest in my health. It’s that simple,” says Lee, who has participated in two rallies. “We know the opposition party tries to cash in on the situation but I think the majority of people on the streets are not here because somebody told them to do so.”

That’s an argument met with suspicion by supporters of the beef deal who suspect militant labor groups and civic groups as the main moving forces behind the rallies.

American officials, including Washington’s top diplomat in Seoul, Alexander Vershbow, have complained that many of the protesters are misled and that scientific reasoning has been shortchanged. Officials on both sides have frequently pointed out that the three cases of BSE discovered in the United States were all in cows born before 1997, when a ban on animal feed was instituted. The ban prohibited the use of ruminant protein in ruminant feed. Scientists have concluded that such feed is how mad cow disease was spread.

In addition, no one is known to have contracted vCJD - the human variant of mad cow disease - from eating U.S. beef, including some 2 million Korean-Americans who eat beef dishes that include parts of cows more likely to carry the disease.

Approximately 40,000 animals are tested annually for the disease in the United States.

A revised report in 2006 by the United States Department of Agriculture states that a seven-year study of data related to BSE suggests that “the prevalence of BSE in the United States is less than one infected animal per million adult cattle. The most likely number of infected animals present in the adult cattle population could be four or seven infected animals out of 42 million cattle.” As of January this year, 34.3 million head of cattle, among a total of 96.7 million, were slaughtered commercially, according to the USDA.

Armed with such data, the prevailing feeling among U.S. officials is that sound science is being grossly overshadowed by political outcries, bad publicity and a rumor mill on overdrive. Teenagers interviewed on TV added fuel to the fire when they said that a bite of U.S. beef is enough to get them killed.


Uncertainty


Nevertheless, Lee Nae-yong, a professor at Korea University, said the uncertainty over statistical studies, however small, is not sitting well with consumers concerned with their health.

“Even when the probability is very low, people are thinking why they should be exposed to a risk, however small, when there is a choice not to be at risk,” he said.

A perception that the beef deal which Seoul struck with Washington was done out of haste has not helped, he added.

“An agreement [on importing beef from older cows] was made that neighboring countries such as Japan had refused to make, citing their own health standards. People think they should not have lower standards.

“Once people get it in their minds that they drew the short straw in a deal, then low risk is not acceptable, even though you have lots of other products out there with similar risks. Emotions are dictating actions,” said Lee.

One argument often made by protesters is that beef exporters and importers can’t be trusted as they could try to circumvent the law to make profits.

“There is a food ban in place, but how do we know that every single cattle farm in the United States follows the regulations? There are always those who break the law,” says Lee Gi-ho, 36, a college instructor. “The same goes for the importers here. Somebody will try to sell cheap stuff and package it as prime beef.”

Some analysts suggest that the country’s relatively young democracy and efforts to distance itself from Washington, with whom it has shared a military alliance since the Korean War, were all factors that contributed to the current political climate.

“It’s always about equality in the relationship with Washington. The negative public sentiment only grows larger when there is a slight hint of inequality, perceived or real,” says professor Lee Cheol-sun of Pusan University. “Koreans like to measure themselves against others. They are conscious about their standing in the world. It would have been much easier to sell the deal if other countries had a similar one in place.”

For the past decade, since former President Kim Dae-jung started his Sunshine Policy toward North Korea, South Korea has adopted a more forceful voice in its relationship with Washington, which reached a peak under Roh Moo-hyun. For a younger generation that has no war memories and grew up under more liberal governments, cozying up to Washington is less acceptable, some say. “I think the president made the deal because he wanted to stand in the good graces of the United States so that he could reap benefits later,” says Choi Young-woo, 29, who works for LG CNS.

Despite its highly industrialized economy, Korean democracy is still relatively young. The public is highly vocal in expressing views on social issues. It was not until Kim Young-sam took office in 1993 that South Korea became a full-fledged democracy. All other predecessors had links to the military that played a leading role in cementing authoritarian regimes since Park Chung-Hee.

Such a newfound democracy has given rise to varied forms of expression. In a country that is one of the most wired in the world, truth or hysteria spreads like wildfire. In the past week, over 4.5 million people visited the site afreeca, an Internet broadcasting station that has been airing the protest rallies. Experts point out that nowadays crowd mobilization comes instantly with the Internet serving as a hub for social discussion.

The constant circulation of graphic TV footage and broadcasts over the Internet of protesters being beaten by riot police, has not helped the Lee administration’s efforts to win over the public. And dealing with rising commodity and gas prices has further complicated the situation.

While exploits by anti-FTA forces and opposition parties have added to the current state of affairs, some of the chaos was caused by the Lee administration’s blunders.

The administration’s attempt to strengthen the English education by overhauling the country’s public education system has raised fears of rising private education costs, while recent disclosure of the wealth of Blue House chief secretaries, aides and the presidential cabinet have exacerbated the public’s alienation. Plans for a grand cross-country canal, an election campaign promise by President Lee that some view as a waste of resources, has also caused a stir. Nicknamed the “Bulldozer” for his relentless management style of not taking “no” for an answer while working as an executive at Hyundai ? an organization known for its military style management ? President Lee was hailed as a CEO-style president at his inauguration. He seemed the perfect man to revive the economy. Now, such traits that got Lee elected are seen as the main reason he has failed to communicate his policies and build support for them.

With his approval rating at an all-time low, one Blue House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, admitted that the feeling within the administration is that whatever political capital the president had has disappeared and a new approach is needed.

“I think we need to do a better job of communicating with the public,” says the official. “The top-down approach with the public doesn’t work. We have to start over from square one.”

Last week, senior government officials said that discussions about the grand canal project would be halted indefinitely until things calm down. Meanwhile, all Blue House chief secretaries have handed in their resignation while the same fate could await the entire cabinet if public pressure increases.

While the protest rallies surely stand for disapproval overall of President Lee’s various policies, many analysts believe that the current protest rallies are much less about anti- U.S. sentiment.

“It’s not about that. You don’t hear many anti-U.S. slogans chanted. It’s mainly about people criticizing the government’s policies on various issues, ranging from education to the privatization of medical insurance,” says Lee Jun-han, a professor of politics at the University of Incheon.

Nevertheless, the professor warned that with the visit by U.S. President George W. Bush scheduled next month, things could quickly change if the administration handles the situation incorrectly.

“We are not there yet, but as politicized as the issue has become, no one should be surprised if we see anti-U.S. rallies suddenly.”

It’s unclear whether concerns on an FTA deal with Washington that still needs to be ratified in both countries could cause the public to take a broader view than just continue to demand renegotiation of the U.S. beef deal. For sure, advice such as that from Geum Ik-yeol, 51, a taxi driver, who voted for President Lee, should serve as a signpost.

“When questions were raised by the public the president simply said you should not eat the beef. I’m sure he will not eat the cheap beef, but what about people like us?” Geum asked.

“Forget whether the beef is safe or not. That’s the wrong way to talk to the people.”



By Brian Lee Staff Reporter [africanu@joongang.co.kr]
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