[Viewpoint] ‘Shut up and eat your meat!’

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[Viewpoint] ‘Shut up and eat your meat!’

It’s beginning to feel like a dramatic soap opera. After the latest case of a mad cow disease infection in the United States, the Lee Myung-bak administration’s vulnerabilities were exposed. The public servants of the two countries showed they were poles apart in terms of their readiness and responses.

Wendy Cutler, assistant U.S. trade representative, was particularly distinguishable. She was a true professional. She was already aware of the possibility that mad cow disease might break out again and that South Korea would ban imports once again. While she accepted the statement of then Prime Minister Han Seung-soo, who said that Seoul will stop imports if public safety was threatened, she made clear that she could accept the Korean government’s warning. It was an apt response of a trade expert with 23 years of experience as she defended her country’s national interests.

Korea, in contrast, reacted extremely poorly. The key officials involved in the 2008 deal to reopen the country’s market to American beef all showed different attitudes. Chung Woon-chun, former agriculture minister, said the government must ban imports as promised. Kim Jong-hoon, former trade minister, said the matter should be taken to the agriculture and health ministries, adding that “the government warning was an error.” Min Dong-seok, former chief negotiator, confessed in his autobiography that the government could not stop imports, even if a mad cow disease outbreak was reported again.

The situation is shocking. The Korean government has no soul, and that is scarier than any outbreak of mad cow disease in the United States.

The Blue House said the warning was too brief and abridged and omitted many details. It asked the public to refer to the prime minister’s statement. That was a lame excuse. From now on, do we have to compare all government warnings and statements down to the tiniest detail?

If it were a proper government, it should have apologized for having aired an inaccurate warning rather than give excuses. In fact, the law governing advertisement and labeling stipulates clearly that all exaggerations and falsehoods that lead to misunderstanding among consumers will be penalized. Those kinds of violations can be punished with up to two years in jail or up to 150 million won ($133,000) in fines. There are countless precedents in which the nation’s courts have punished advertisers for misleading consumers.

In the controversy over mad cow disease and imports of American beef, we must clearly differentiate between the feeling of safety and the feeling of general uneasiness. There are not that many people who really doubt the safety of American beef. The world at large is reacting calmly. The Korean public has learned a lesson from the situation four years ago, which was made volatile by an endless string of groundless rumors. Therefore, it is hard to agree with the anti-American beef movement, which argues “Shut up and light candles to protest!”

However, the feeling of uneasiness remains about our government, which argues “Shut up and eat your meat!” The government is only stressing the safety of American beef, while ignoring the importance of the public’s unease. It feels like the government is harshly ignoring the public by saying, “Just don’t eat it if you don’t feel comfortable.”

Korean society’s sentiment is probably somewhere between the two feelings. Ordinary housewives, interviewed by media, made some piercing remarks. “The government said it’s okay, but we can’t really trust it,” a housewife said. “There are so many stores that lie about the origins of its meat that it’s natural for us to feel uneasy when we think about our children’s health.”

It’s no wonder that sales of the American beef plunged. The uneasy consumers were acting based on their instincts, clearly affecting the market.

The public feels extremely uncomfortable, while the Korean chief negotiators of the beef deal are speaking in very different voices. At the same time, the United States is fueling the public discomfort by saying that it appreciates Korea’s decision to not take a precipitate action.

Some complained that the government was worse in handling the situation than the discount chain stores, and that Korea was reacting in a feebler way than were Thailand and Indonesia, which restricted imports. They are not overreacting. It is natural to feel irritated.

Over the weekend, the Blue House secretariat was reportedly on emergency duty. It appears that the government is still not afraid of the rage of its own people and only fears a trade dispute with Washington. The opposition parties have long demanded that imports be stopped, while most of the ruling Saenuri Party are demanding that inspections be suspended and customs clearances halted.

The more the Blue House insists, the more isolated it will become. If it wonders where this is going, it can ask anyone on the street. The answer it will get is that the government should stop inspections and only resume imports after the safety of the beef is fully confirmed.

We are tired of seeing candlelight protests whenever an issue linked to the United States comes up, and equally tired of seeing a government that shows an incredibly supine attitude before Washington.

It is inappropriate to sum up the public’s feeling in a foul-mouthed language like from “Naggomsu” (“I’m a Petty-Minded Creep”) podcast hosts, so let’s borrow a memorable quote from the late President Roh Moo-hyun. “It’s such a tough job to be a citizen that I don’t want it anymore.”

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

by Lee Chul-ho
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