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South Korean Potboiler Roils On PDF Print E-mail
Written by Steve Dittmer   
Wednesday, 11 June 2008
AFF Sentinel Vol.5#27

A television pilot pitched to the networks with the twists and surprises of South Korea's recent food and political wars would have been rejected as surreal.


  • The first major initiative from a new South Korean president is a beef agreement known as a precursor to U.S. approval of a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) estimated to add $20 billion to current U.S.-Korean $78 billion trade. He seeks to revive his economy by facilitating FTA approval in both countries.
  • Some South Korean teenagers blog false information about the dangers of U.S. beef, Koreans' genetic predisposition to vCJD and Americans refusal to eat American beef. Other students and the teachers union spread the false information.
  • The opposition political parties - upset at electoral losses but still holding parliamentary seats for a couple weeks - seize the opportunity to damage the ruling party's first initiative.
  • The opposition parties and the students manage weeks of street demonstrations with thousands of people (number estimates vary). The demonstrators oppose the importation of U.S. beef and the opposition party demands a total renegotiation of the beef agreement. The vehemence, size and weeks of protests seem surreal to Americans and shock Korean government.
  • Stunned, the South Korean government temporarily delayed the inspection of U.S. beef held long-term in quarantine, hoping things will blow over. Both the U.S. and the South Korean administration say the beef agreement will not be renegotiated. Neither wants the repercussions from reneging on a major international trade deal. Both attempt to figure out a workaround within the agreement framework and the strictures placed on politicians by hysterical citizens. Korean envoys visit Washington to parley.
  • Frustrated with the country's paralysis over the beef deal and their failure to warn the president of the unimaginable, eight of the South Korean president's aides tender their resignations. He has not accepted them -- yet. Rumors claim several cabinet ministers could also get axed.
  • Several major U.S. beef exporters, hunting a practical solution, offered to restrict shipments to beef from animals under 30 months and indicate such on package labels. Virtually everything sold to Korea is from younger animals, the hysteria among the Korean citizens is largely about beef from over 30-month cattle and it would be private initiative within the agreement. The agreement allows beef from animals of any age with proper specified risk material (SRM) removal, according to international scientific standards (OIE). Korean officials are hoping that such "voluntary restrictions" on U.S. exporters - perhaps with additional restrictions on Korean importers -- will satisfy both consumers and the U.S. government.
  • The opposition parties took a rare step -- boycotting the new parliament.
  • Incredibly, labor unions representing hundreds of thousands at Hyundai and Kia look likely to vote for a protest strike shortly.

Koreans have been sensitized to food safety, as recently over six million fowl were destroyed in a bird flu epidemic measure. But criticisms of the agreement as hasty and unconcerned with food safety ignore the painstaking negotiations over years that preceded the agreement. Finally, someone has admitted that environmental concerns over a 200-mile canal is also fueling the protests.

One South Korean editorial typifies the contradictions some Koreans are currently exhibiting. It called for a "compromise" -- complete renegotiation of the beef pact -- even though it admits America has done nothing wrong -- because it claims 80 percent of the country wants it. If the U.S. doesn't renegotiate, "Clearly, Koreans' attitude towards the U.S. and American products will change in a big way...The U.S. stands to lose far more than it would be gaining..."

Eying my LG cell phone, my LG television screen and the Hyundai, Suzuki and Kia vehicles on our streets, I reflected that the Korean hyperbole hasn't even mentioned the volume of Korean products Americans buy. Protesting students and politicians likely don't have jobs at any companies shipping goods here. Belatedly, last week a presidential spokesman finally acknowledged that renegotiation could "seriously affect" Korean exports. Perhaps it is time for Korean businessmen and workers to inject some rational common sense.

There are some pretty good-sized Korean sedans here, but none with a bumper long enough for a sticker from the protest group "provisionally named" the "National Countermeasure Meeting Against Imports of U.S. Beef Possibly Infected with Mad Cow Disease."

That's heated rhetoric, not the scientific, sober- minded approach we expect from South Koreans. And time is running out for any chance of an FTA in the U.S. Congress.

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Last Updated ( Thursday, 03 July 2008 )
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