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Since a deal to open the Korean market to imports of American beef was struck in April, the Lee Myung-bak administration has been facing a storm of resistance from the people. The government has made a variety of moves in its attempts to overcome the crisis, which has seen tens of thousands of candlelight protesters paralyze the streets of downtown Seoul, but it is still finding it very difficult to communicate with the people. There is no sign that the people are beginning to accept the administration’s argument that equality and rationality were respected in the course of negotiations for the deal.

Even though the chances are extremely slim, Koreans and others believe that the risk of exposure to mad cow disease is greater from cattle over 30 months of age.

But there are perhaps bigger issues at work here. Koreans have long had mixed sentiments about the United States, so the government should have been careful when trying to persuade the people that the deal was the right thing to do. The lack of efforts directed toward this purpose is one of the main causes for the dire situation in which we currently find ourselves.

The public perception that we are weak when negotiating with the United States has been formed through the long history of Korea-U.S. relations. After Korea gained independence from the Japanese, U.S. occupation continued for three years. A Korea-U.S. alliance was formed after the United States engaged in the Korean War.

As Korea has long been dependent on the United States for national security, a suspicion swirls that other issues between Korea and the United States are decided according to the wishes of the stronger nation. In this context, even if the negotiation over the beef deal is actually on equal footing, the people have difficulty accepting it because of their perception that an imbalance of power continues to exist between the two countries. U.S. beef issue must be resolved one way or another, but it must not be resolved with temporary measures.

To fundamentally resolve the people’s resistance to importing American beef, we must create standards aimed at securely protecting the people from risks of mad cow disease. Further, suspicions that Korea gets the short end of the stick in talks with the United States must be cleared.

At the same time, multilateral measures should be taken against mad cow disease because it doesn’t only concern Korea and the United States, but is a potential health threat to all humankind. Such measures will naturally lead to objective quarantine standards among a larger bloc of countries, instead of an agreement between only two countries.

The outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in China once managed to traverse the entire world, whereas it could have been effectively handled within the frame of a multilateral system.

In fear of the political and economic side effects of news of a SARS outbreak within its borders, China strictly controlled information about the disease and tried to find solutions to the problem on its own. But the case was resolved through the active intervention of the World Health Organization. The WHO gathered accurate data on the case from Singapore and Vietnam, drew up measures, induced China to participate in the efforts and successfully resolved the problem.

As for quarantine standards for mad cow disease, the World Organization for Animal Health is an authoritative agency that is more than qualified to create standards. However, in the U.S. beef dispute, the Korean people failed to put their trust in the international organization.

Therefore, another measure should be sought within a multilateral system that Koreans can trust. The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation can play a role in creating such a system. APEC is a multilateral cooperation body whose primary objective is increasing trade among member countries. Recently, the organization has been seriously addressing environmental and health issues as well. For instance, APEC created guidelines for dealing with SARS, bird flu and AIDS, is making efforts to empower countries that are less aware of these issues and carries out projects to increase awareness of the environment and health issues.

APEC counts America, Australia New Zealand and Canada, major beef exporters, as its members. Thus, it can put together quarantine standards for mad cow disease that can be applied to all member countries and a system to make member countries follow the standards. It won’t be easy to adjust to the different interests of the different countries. But once realized, it could be an ideal solution that frees Koreans from fears of imported beef which could carry mad cow disease and clears the suspicion that Korea has weak negotiation power against the United States.

*The writer is a professor of international law at the Division of International Studies, Korea University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Chung Suh-yong
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