Thursday, June 12, 2008

US beef row steers Seoul into chaos
By Donald Kirk

SEOUL - The issue 21 years ago was the cruelty of a venal dictator who had rammed through his own version of a constitution that would legitimize his power and that of a successor while suppressing a democratic movement that had captured the hearts and minds of a majority of the citizenry.

The date was June 10, 1987, when the dictatorial Chun Doo-hwan and his top collaborator, Roh Tae-woo, both former generals, announced plans for a phony presidential election even as protesters opened three weeks of demonstrations that would transform the style and nature of Korean governance.

The issue on this June 10, at what might have been a simple commemoration of that momentous month, is rather different - with eerily similar overtones. In the name of democracy, tens of thousands of protesters are taking to the streets of central Seoul to shout down what they see as an attempt to shove poisoned American beef down the throats of downtrodden South Koreans.

The anti-beef, anti-American protest has mushroomed from relatively small outpourings six weeks ago to daily demonstrations complete with cartoon images of American cows beside caricatures of President Lee Myong-bak dressed in the uniform of a German Gestapo figure. The message is that he is not only a dictator in the tradition of Chun and Chun's long-ruling predecessor, Park Chung-hee, assassinated by his intelligence chief in October 1979, but also a stubborn fool with less intellect than the cows whose beef he wants to import from the US.

Lee's cabinet on Tuesday went through a dramatic routine of showing it had got the message by offering an en-masse resignation. Even if Lee reorganizes the cabinet, jettisoning some if not all his ministers, it's not likely he'll recover soon if ever from the nosedive in popularity that he's suffered since his landslide election as president over a left-leaning opponent in December's presidential election.

Right now, the fear is that the demonstrations will explode into a revolution on the streets reminiscent of the democracy protests of more than two decades ago. The government "has to prioritize the safety of the people in dealing with tonight's massive candlelight street rallies", said a spokesman quoted by Yonhap, the South Korean news agency. "It has to take all possible measures to ensure that not a single unfortunate accident occurs during the rallies."

That remark reflects the orders given to tens of thousands of policemen standing by poised for hundreds of arrests, as the protests spread through central Seoul and other major cities.

In emergency mode, a team of South Korean negotiators from Lee's government and Grand National Party has arrived in Washington hoping to explain to US officials and politicians that the deal for reopening South Korea's market to US beef just won't work. At the very least, they're calling on voluntary restraints on the export to Korea of beef from cattle more than 30 months old. That's a significant retreat from entirely opening the market here, as Lee has promised to do, but won't begin to mollify protesters spurred on by activists calling for dissolution of the US-Korean military alliance and withdrawal of America's 28,500 troops from the country..

The demonstrators, ranging from high school students to middle-aged housewives, are observing today's date with sensational reminders of one of the tragedies of the June 1987 democracy movement when a Yonsei University student was killed by a teargas canister. Yonsei students are parading with black-framed portraits of the student, Lee Han-yeol, calling on Koreans to demonstrate against American beef with the same fervor with which hundreds of thousands forced acceptance on June 29, 1987, of the "democracy constitution" that remains in effect today.

Lee's decision "to resume the imports of American beef runs counter to public opinion and to democracy", said a typical statement issued by students. "Citizens' voluntary rallies are the call for democracy."

The violence has yet to reach the level of numerous protests from the late 1980s in which students tossed Molotov cocktails and rocks at rows of policemen garbed in Darth Vader-type uniforms, holding truncheons and sticks. The police, however, have fired water cannons and arrested scores of protesters in recent days - clashes that add still and video images to commentaries spread on the Internet by thousands of Korean netizens.

Just how American beef came to assume such importance in the democracy movement is a puzzle that historians, political scientists and psychologists will no doubt be attempting to sort out for some time, but the simple fact is that Lee's agriculture minister signed the deal for reopening South Korea's market to US beef imports in early April as Lee was about to take off for a summit with President George W Bush in Camp David.

The idea was simple. US diplomats, notably the American ambassador, Alexander Vershbow, had been advising Koreans at every chance they got that the free trade agreement (FTA) worked out by US and Korean negotiators in nearly a year and a half of talks would never get through the US Congress if South Korea refused to accept American beef imports. Although beef was not included in the FTA, US officials, politicians and business people said the agreement was dead if US beef could not get into Korea as freely as it had for two years before the discovery of mad cow disease in a cow in Washington State in December 2003.

Vershbow added fuel to the fire of the protests by remarking several days ago that Koreans "begin to learn more about the science and about the facts of American beef" and address the issue "constructively".

He no doubt saw his remark as a reminder that no American had contracted "mad cow" disease and that US officials had promised stern controls. Perhaps most important, cows have not been fed with feed made from ground beef in the US for more than a decade after animal feed was found to have been a common denominator in "mad cow" disease in England.

The beef protest, though, is about much more than mad cow disease. It represents a renaissance of anti-government protest that died down in the 10 years of leftist leadership under Kim Dae-jung and his unpopular successor, Roh Moo-hyun, but always simmers near the surface. The conservative Lee has also antagonized activists by promising to support the interests of the chaebol, or conglomerates, where he rose to prominence as the hot-shot chairman of Hyundai Engineering and Construction more than 30 years ago. Hostility toward US beef also reflects economic concerns.

South Korea had removed non-tariff barriers to US beef imports two years earlier as a result of the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs signed at the Uruguay round in 1994. Despite tariffs of as high as 40%, US beef sold at less than one-third of the price of beef from Korean cattle, and exports zoomed to US$800 million a year. South Korea by the time the exports were halted was the third-biggest market for US beef.

That success was too much for Korean farmers and merchants of farm products. The complete ban on US beef revealed not just the fear of "mad cow" disease but the passions of farmers, who saw the imports as a threat to their livelihoods, and pressure from commercial interests vying to sell Korean products. Their opposition to US beef was similar to that of rice farmers, whose fervent protests have been enough to exclude rice imports totally from anything to do with any free trade agreement.

The ban on US beef was slightly lifted more than a year ago with a deal for import of boneless US beef, but those imports were suspended after X-rays found chips in the initial shipments. Since bone chips will inevitably show up even in "boneless" beef, US negotiators insisted on the door opening to boned beef, including T-bones and ribs beloved by Korean beef-eaters.

The only qualification was that all beef shipments be stripped of SRMs - specified risk materials, including vertebrae and brains - deemed more vulnerable to "mad cow" disease. Oh yes, the US wanted Korea open to beef from cattle that were more than 30 months old, the age beyond which the risk of "mad cow" disease is also believed to be higher.

Koreans refuse to believe US claims that 20% of the beef on American markets - the beef routinely used in hamburgers - is from cattle more than 30 months old. The view is widely circulated here that Americans want to force Koreans to eat stuff they won't eat themselves.

At this stage, no amount of explanations and diplomacy is likely to work. Bush has talked to Lee on the phone, saying, in effect, "Ok, we won't export beef more than 30 months old," but no one here is listening.

Christopher Hill, the US assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific, in the midst of efforts to get North Korea to abide by terms of last year's agreements to give up its nuclear weapons, implicitly rebuked Vershbow's allusion to Koreans' understanding of science. "The best thing for American diplomats," he said in a speech in Washington, "is to try not to get in the middle of this but allow the Korean people to deal with this, with their issues, in the way they choose to deal with it."

The alternative is that the protests could turn against the US bases, as in the past, and undermine the entire alliance - the goal of the political parties and labor unions at the forefront of Tuesday's mass outpouring.

Journalist Donald Kirk has been covering Korea - and the confrontation of forces in Northeast Asia - for more than 30 years.

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