Protests in South Korea Imperil Government
By CHOE SANG-HUN
SEOUL, South Korea — President Lee Myung-bak confronted the biggest challenge to his young and increasingly unpopular administration Tuesday as tens of thousands of demonstrators filled central Seoul to protest his agreement to resume suspended imports of American beef and to denounce a broad range of other government policies.
The country’s entire cabinet offered to resign as a way to help Mr. Lee find a way out of the crisis. It was unclear if he would accept the resignations.
Mr. Lee’s 107-day-old government has been increasingly beset by fears that his agreement to reopen markets to American beef could expose the public to mad cow disease.
For the past 40 days, central Seoul has been rocked by demonstrations , which began as rallies by hundreds of teenage students, singing, dancing and holding candles to protest the importing of American beef. They have now evolved into a protest against government policies on education, health care and consumer prices.
Once hailed as a potential savior of South Korea’s troubled economy, Mr. Lee has lost public confidence in his leadership over a broad range of policies at a time South Korea is grappling with a slowing economy and a prolonged crisis over North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs, political analysts said.
"Lee Myung Bak, OUT!" the protesters chanted, brandishing yellow and red cards carrying the same message.
The rally almost had a mood of festivity, with the city center reverberating with anti-government slogans and people dancing to the tune of songs blared from loudspeakers.
Overhead, large balloons carried banners that read “Judgement day for Lee Myung Bak" and "Re-negotiate the beef deal." One widely distributed leaflet said: “Mad cow drives our people mad!”
Police estimated the crowd at 60,000, while organizers claimed there were as many as 400,000. The protesters appeared to encompass a broad spectrum of South Korean society: teenage students, union members, Roman Catholic nuns, office workers in neckties and mothers and fathers holding hands with small children.
Up to 21,000 police officers were present at the demonstration, setting up barricades across roads leading to the presidential Blue House with buses and shipping containers. Protesters spray-painted the barricades with anti-Lee slogans.
The agriculture minister, Chung Won-chun, visited the rally to offer an apology in a speech, but protesters quickly surrounded him chanting "traitor!" and he was forced to leave.
Mr. Lee appealed to both the police and protesters to avoid clashes. He promised to be "humble before the people’s voices" and called for national unity to overcome an economic crisis spawned by stagnant growth and surging prices for oil and other raw materials.
"Our economy is faced with a serious difficulty, with prices rising and the economy gradually slowing," Mr. Lee said in a speech on Tuesday to mark the 21st anniversary of pro-democracy protests that helped end years of military dictatorship in South Korea.
But in downtown Seoul, the same protesters marked the anniversary by denouncing Mr. Lee, whom some of them called "the public enemy No. 1."
Both Seoul and Washington defended the safety of American beef. But protesters said they saw in the way their leader, nicknamed the Bulldozer, reached a beef deal with Washington signs of an "authoritarian leader," out of touch with common people and "tone-deaf." They accused Mr. Lee of being too eager to please the United States, even at the expense of the health of his own people.
Mr. Lee offered no immediate comment on whether he would accept the offer of resignation by Prime Minister Han Seung-soo and other cabinet members. But the offer, coupled with an earlier offer by his top aides to resign, opens the way for Mr. Lee to overhaul his government for a new beginning as he desperately tries to arrest his plummeting approval ratings.
On Monday, Mr. Lee sent a delegation to Washington to help defuse the crisis and seek assurances that the United States would not export beef from cattle older than 30 months, even though that is allowed under an agreement reached with the United States in April. Younger cattle are believed to be less susceptible to mad cow disease.
"The most serious problem for the president is that he has lost the people’s confidence," said Kang Won-taek, a political scientist at Soongsil University in Seoul. “People do not trust what he says or what he does.”
Mr. Lee won the presidency in December with the biggest margin of victory in decades . But his popularity has plunged below 20 percent since his government agreed to reopen the domestic markets to beef from the United States, going against a deep-rooted public fear that American beef may not be safe from mad cow disease.
The agreement came as Mr. Lee championed a new "pragmatic" approach to relations with the United States.
The alliance between Washington and Seoul had shown signs of strain under Mr. Lee’s predecessor, Roh Moo-hyun, who was often accused of stoking and capitalizing on young South Koreans’ nationalistic and often anti-American sentiments.
Mr. Lee hoped his decision to end the five-year-old ban on American beef would help win United States Congressional support for a free trade agreement between the countries.
Such a free trade deal in turn will further cement the alliance and help upgrade the South Korean economy, he said. Congressional leaders have warned that they will never ratify the free trade pact unless South Korea fully opens its market to American beef.
Thousands of South Korean students, mainly networking through the Internet, immediately took to the streets, followed by a broader uproar. The protesters called the agreement a "humiliating" concession that they said came as a result of American pressure and in disregard of Koreans’ health concern.
As Mr. Lee refused to accept the snowballing demands for renegotiation, demonstrations grew. They became the platform for a wide range of grievances against the conservative leader’s policies, particularly from left-leaning groups and labor unions.
Also on Tuesday, thousands of conservative activists supporting the beef and free trade deals with the United States staged a rival protest in a plaza in the center of Seoul. But their rally was eclipsed by the much bigger rally by anti-government protesters.
Mr. Lee’s blunders in appointing people with doubtful ethical standards to his presidential staff only compounded his troubles. He himself was dogged by allegations of corruption during the election campaign, but voters largely overlooked the claims, betting instead that Mr. Lee, a successful business chief executive, would be able to revive the economy.
But his current trouble shows that South Koreans’ patience was wearing thin.
"South Koreans had a lot of doubt when they elected Lee, but they hoped he would save the economy," said Choi Jin, director of the Institute of Presidential Leadership. "But this doubt deepened when Lee failed to demonstrate any immediate improvement of the economy. The beef debacle was the trigger to explode the undercurrent of doubt."
But both Mr. Kang and Mr. Choi said the current demonstrations were not anti-American but rather protests against Mr. Lee’s performance. Many of the demonstrators said they supported a free trade deal with the United States.