Friday, June 06, 2008

06-05-2008 17:55
Mad Cow Hysteria

By Michael Breen

The decision by the Korean government this week to renege on its agreement to import American beef has deeply perplexed its negotiating partners in the United States.

``We are in close contact with the Korean government in an effort to gain a better understanding of the situation,'' said Sean Spicer, the spokesman at the U.S. Trade Representative Office in an interview with the Yonhap News Agency. That's Washington-speak for ``what the xxxx just happened?''

The U.S. ambassador, Alexander Vershbow, came out and said that the deal agreed in April addresses the science of the mad cow issue and provides effective measures to ensure the safety of beef exported to Korea and therefore doesn't need to be renegotiated.

That was a good point.

So why then would the opposition Democratic Labor Party say that we were back in the 1940s when an American military government ruled Korea? Why would the leader of the main opposition United Democratic Party, Sohn Hak-kyu, say that the ambassador insulted the Korean people by saying they should learn science?

While we're asking, why would tens of thousands of people join protests about mad cow disease without asking the critical question, ``Why aren't Americans protesting against American beef?'' Why would the government choose to perplex its foreign partners rather than argue its case to its own people?

The answer to all of the above is that Americans are from Mars and Koreans are from Venus, meaning that Americans suppress emotion in public discourse because they believe that we can move forward if we engage rationally, whereas Koreans do the opposite.

To be fair to the government and the opposition parties, they believe it to be their democratic duty to respond to public emotion. They sound like lunatics to outsiders ― UDP's Sohn has a Ph. D from Oxford for God's sake ― because emotion demands that they dumb down their explanations.

This situation would not be so confusing if the diplomats, journalists and other foreign residents who know Korea did their jobs properly. But either they don't understand the dynamic themselves or out of love for Koreans they moderate their language. Thus the foreign press, for example, refers to ``anger against resumed beef imports,'' rather than public hysteria, which is what it really is. Believe me. As a European, I know hysteria when I see it. We murdered 200,000 people as witches in the 15th century and 6 million Jews, and large numbers of Gypsies and homosexuals, in the 20th, for reasons that we don't know.

Imagine for a moment that the two sides articulated their positions the other way round. Ambassador Vershbow could say, ``If Korea refuses our beef, I will be forced to make a grave decision.'' I know, it sounds flaky, and the DLP would still say it sounds like 1947 because that's the song that keeps playing in their heads. But the UDP's Sohn and President Lee would get it.

Then they could respond, ``We respect the U.S. government's position with regard to beef agreement and are fully prepared to respond in a positive manner in due course.'' Bush would get that Korea respects America.

But, enough fantasizing. The political leadership in Korea is stymied because its view of democracy is that it is elected, not to represent the people and act in their interest, but rather to follow their voice. In practice, this means that the noisy, and often minority, public opinion, whipped up by the press, or, as in this case, opinion-makers on the Internet, holds an absurd sway over official decision-making in this country.

So, what should be done?

The government needs to take a strong intellectual position, arguing for truth, reason, science and common sense. Practically, this requires President Lee to get his message straight, make sure his top officials are singing from the same hymn sheet and send them out to do interviews and give speeches arguing why the beef deal was agreed and how the free trade agreement (FTA), which it is part of, will benefit Korea.

That said, here's what I think will actually happen. Action will be symbolic not substantial. Step one will be to pretend to be tough guys and renegotiate the deal. This will have a double-effect: first, it will say, we were idiots but will try and do better this time, and, second, it make the Americans look mean like they fooled our people last time around. This step is of course essentially a cowardly one. As evidence of this claim, Korean negotiators will privately ask their U.S. counterparts to ``please understand our position.''

Step two will be to fire a Cabinet member or two. Even though they don't deserve to be fired, the baying mob demands blood not common sense. Again, there's a double-effect: the first is to suggest that the President chooses idiots, and the second is to encourage the mob to try and get rid of some more.

An unusual step we've seen already is tougher police action. This is a not necessarily a bad idea particularly against violence. But it needs to be thoughtfully executed. One of my friends in the candlelit protest last weekend said police were shouting, ``Kill them.'' That is not the wisest strategy to deal with schoolgirls even if they are marching on the Blue House armed with candles.

Logic suggests that the end result may well be the failure of the FTA. But events are not likely to follow this logical course because of the pattern of American indulgence of its close ally. The mere fact of trying to understand shows that they feel like it's partly their fault. Given this, they'll give President Lee some face-saving change, the hysteria will pass... in time for The (Next President) to nix the whole FTA.

Michael Breen is president of Insight Communications Consultants in Seoul. He can be reached at

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