[Outlook]Going to the source

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[Outlook]Going to the source

Since mid-June, newspapers and broadcasters have run stories about how the crowds attending recent demonstrations in Gwanghwamun have been the biggest since the democratization movement was sparked on June 10, 1987.

The record has since been broken once every couple of days. The panic and fear over mad cow disease persists and candlelight vigils continue. Nothing seems to be getting better.

What caused this? What went wrong in the first place? Opinions differ as to what sparked the upheaval. Some say the government was incompetent and responded to the issue too slowly.

There are politicians boycotting the National Assembly; they must have a good reason to do so. Labor unions are trying to use the beef row as a chance to express their demands, but we can still try to understand them.

We can try to understand all the groups of people flocking to the rallies, but there is one important thing we shouldn’t overlook. We need to look at the mad cow issue closely because it gave rise to all the rest of these continuing demonstrations.

As a person who served as the head of a legation in Europe more than three times, I believe examining this root cause is the right thing for the country to do.

Mad cow disease was first reported in Britain in 1986. The country has been pinpointed as the origin of bovine spongiform encephalopathy; more than 180,000 cases of mad cow disease have since appeared in cattle there.

In Germany, where I used to work, the first case of BSE appeared in November of 2000, just as in Switzerland. The case was a big issue in parts of Germany but people responded very rationally. I wonder how Koreans would react if we had opened our beef market to Britain instead of the United States, where only three cows were suspected to have BSE.

Since 1986, when mad cow appeared in Britain, many European countries, including Germany, did careful research to find out what caused the disease.

Among the countries I worked in, Norway had no reported cases of the disease, and three cases were found in Denmark.

In January 2001, another case of mad cow disease appeared in Germany and also in Switzerland. As of late May this year, 312 cases of mad cow disease have occurred in Germany.

On Jan. 31, 2001, 400,000 cows which were suspected to have BSE were slaughtered in Germany. Hearing that news, on Feb. 31, 2001, North Korea asked Germany to send those slaughtered animals in aid.

But Germany destroyed all the hundreds of thousands of culled animals, instead donating other cattle to North Korea. The gesture was later reported in the media. There were two donations, one in November 2001 and another on Feb. 1, 2002.

The case was the same in Switzerland. On Feb. 20, 2001, cattle suspected of having BSE appeared and all were destroyed. The country sent other beef worth 7 million Swiss francs ($6.8 million) in aid to North Korea.

Austria followed suit.

But some media outlets reported that the OSE countries actually sent cattle with mad cow disease to North Korea.

However, in Korea, nobody, including the civic organizations that are leading candlelight vigils now, mentioned the issue at that time.

Were there actual cases in which BSE was transmitted to humans?

The chances of that happening are nearly nonexistent. Otherwise, countless Europeans would have been suffering or have died from the human equivalent of mad cow disease by now.

Creutzfeldt-Jacob Disease was once believed to be contracted from consuming beef infected with mad cow disease but it was recently reported in Germany that the disease has nothing to do with BSE.

I have no memory of hearing stories or news reports about people suffering from the disease or having died from it.

Scientists maintain that statistically there have been nearly no cases in which mad cow disease was passed to humans.

Our economy is in bad shape these days.

We need to try hard to control soaring commodity prices and to stop economic slowdown. We need to reduce the unemployment rate before even more people take to the streets.

Other countries in the world are discussing not only the individual economic problems in each country, but also surging oil prices and the slowing global economy that is affecting us all. They are talking about measures to overcome the problems.

We should have rational debates based on scientific facts, not emotions, so that our country doesn’t become a laughingstock in international society.

*The writer is a former ambassador to Germany. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Kwon Young-min
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