[Outlook]How it went down

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[Outlook]How it went down

It is time to look carefully at every aspect of the issue over the import of U.S. beef. Thick dust filled the air during candlelight vigils and now it has settled. The whole process of the beef negotiations has been revealed to a certain extent. Bone-in beef from the United States arrived in Korea on Tuesday. The National Assembly decided yesterday to postpone its investigation and it is, in fact, unlikely to occur at all.

As not much can be expected from the parliamentary investigation, I wrote a white paper for this space.

March 2007. The import of U.S. beef was, in fact, expected to take place from the time negotiations began for a Korea-U.S. free trade agreement. The keys in the negotiation were U.S. beef and Korean-made vehicles. According to a source at the negotiation, we got a free trade deal favorable to our car sector on the condition that we would import American beef. The imports were delayed because the World Organization for Animal Health had not yet announced its decision on the safety of U.S. beef. On March 29, then-President Roh Moo-hyun called President George W. Bush and promised to import American beef in accordance with OIE standards. This helped negotiators reach an agreement four days later.

May 2007. As expected, the OIE ruled on May 27 that the United States was a risk-controlled country in terms of bovine spongiform encephalopathy. This means there is technically no risk of mad cow disease. Kwon O-kyu, then deputy prime minister, announced that the negotiation over beef imports from the United States would be finalized by September. Welcoming his words, the United States sent a letter to Korea through its embassy in Seoul which stated that the announcement confirmed the Korean president’s earlier promise. In September that year, then-President Roh met with President Bush in an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting and again promised to open our beef market.

November 2007. The government prepared a concrete negotiation agenda. On Nov. 17, a meeting of ministers related to the negotiation was held and presided over by then-Prime Minister Han Duck-soo. A plan to open our beef market step by step was drawn up in the meeting. According to the plan, beef from cattle of less than 30 months old would be imported first and then beef from cattle over 30 months would be imported later if protein-based food was banned in the United States. Two days later, Kim Joong-hoon, Seoul’s top negotiator of the beef deal, suggested this plan to U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab at the Asean+3 talks. Kim received positive responses. Everything was prepared.

December 2007. Things changed drastically after the presidential election. On Dec. 19, 2007, the day after the election, Prime Minister Han visited the president-elect and reported that he would finalize the beef deal before his term was over. However, then-President Roh Moo-hyun didn’t think the same way.

On Dec. 24, Han and other concerned ministers visited the Blue House. They maintained that the deal must be finalized before their terms were over, but the presidential secretaries opposed it. The president shouted at the ministers, “How can you be so mean?” and that was the end of the meeting. The president was complaining about how the ministers wanted to put the burden of the beef deal on the outgoing president when his party had just lost the election.

Year 2008. Chief Negotiator Kim met with Schwab at the Davos Forum on Jan. 23 and he had to announce the Roh administration’s stance. Even up until the day Kim headed for Switzerland, the Prime Minister made trips to the Blue House. The enraged president said no once again. Kim told Schwab to ask the incoming administration about the issue. Schwab then met with Sakong Il, the head of the transition team’s special committee for national competitiveness, who happened to be attending the forum as well.

President Lee Myung-bak called himself the president of the economy and was confident that the FTA would serve as a breakthrough for Korea’s economic advancement. He had to complete the beef deal. Reports kept coming that the opposition parties would ratify the free trade pact by May, and in that case, the U.S. Congress would likely ratify the pact in July. It was believed that the government’s subsidies for domestic farmers would placate the opposition. In fear of negative effects from the results of the legislative elections, the negotiation was scheduled to be held after the elections.

The talks had to be finalized between the April 9 legislative elections and the Korea-U.S. summit meeting on April 18, and as such was bound to proceed in haste. The Roh administration’s plan to gradually open the beef market was suddenly changed into another plan to open it fully due to U.S. pressure.

Washington is consistent and persistent. The Roh and Lee administrations are not. Both the United Democratic Party and the Grand National Party don’t want their problems revealed. They are busy hiding the corruption of the administrations that they created or blaming others for it.

The legislative body is supposed to keep the administration in check but that doesn’t seem to have happened here. The people’s passion, revealed in candlelight vigils in the springtime, is cooling down in the hall of representatives.

*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Oh Byoung-sang
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