US Compromise on Beef Fails to Dent Korean Protest

After eight weeks of relentless street campaign against imports of American beef, the center of the South Korean capital of Seoul until this weekend looked like a tent town rising out of some disaster zone. The US agreement not to export beef from cattle more than 30 months old, in response to concerns over mad cow disease, is cooling the situation may have cut the number of protesters, but President Lee Myung-bak still faces truculent opposition from students and unions.

For days, in a kind of marathon throwback to the serial demonstrations of the 1980s, angry workers and students camped on the grassy center of the Metropolitan Square – including high school youngsters with book-filled rucksacks on their back – have confronted riot police on the wide boulevard leading to the presidential office. They have marched night after night, clutching lit candles in one hand and iron bars with the other. Swinging banners, they sing patriotic songs and shout slogans like, “Out with President Lee! No to American Beef Tainted with Mad-cow-disease!”

The resulting chaos has given the impression that this metropolis of 11 million people is in a state of perpetual upheaval. Leftwing radicals climb on police vans, shake vehicles threatening to disgorge policemen inside, or fight water-cannon by waving iron bars against shielded policemen in a medieval combat formation. It’s hard to believe this is the capital city of a nation boasting the fourth largest economy in Asia. The breakdown in law and order has reached such a crescendo that Korea’s largest newspaper Chosun Ilbo asked: “When is the Country Going to Restore a Sense of Normalcy?”

It’s a legitimate question to pose, especially after the US agreement over beef exports. For the record, no one has been infected from American beef by bovine spongiform encephalopathy or BSE, a disease known to be capable of being transmitted from beef to human consumers. And, for all the concern, the Paris-based World Organization of Animal Health has declared that American beef is safe for consumption, but such assurance has failed to dent the public protest.

In the eyes of the US officials and even some in the Korean government, the current demonstrations are more to meet the interests of local cattle-raisers charging overblown prices for their meat than the interest of average Korean consumers who want cheaper imported beef. Local beef prices have been typically four times or higher than imported US beef according to Seoul butchers, and no wonder that not a few unscrupulous butchers have capitalized on this huge price difference to sell American beef as local meat.

But Korean cattle raisers are a powerful lobby, with strong links to the leftwing constituency. In week-long talks in Washington, Korean trade ambassador Kim Jong Hoon showed an aerial photo of tens of thousands of candlelight marchers to help persuade US Trade Representative Susan C. Schwab to agree to a compromise, Kim said. In order to save the beef deal, worth US$800 million a year, and pave the way for future passage of the Korea-US Free Trade agreement, on which the beef deal actually hinged, she had no alternative but to bow to Seoul’s demand, officials here say. The US has even agreed to “certify” all beef shipments to Korea guaranteeing their safety, under a “voluntary” basis from US meatpackers.

The whole situation baffles not just Washington, but also the administration of President Lee Myung Bak, which came to office barely four months ago on a landslide victory built on a pledge to roll back some of the leftwing policies of the previous government. That design, it seems, lies at the heart of current protest, an attempt by the leftwing lobby to prevent Lee from proceeding with a slew of reforms in the economic, political and educational sectors to strengthen Korea’s overall competitiveness.

Under his conservative platform, Lee, a former chief executive officer from Hyundai Construction Company, has vowed to cut taxes, reduce regulation, privatize or restructure the inefficient and overblown state-owned industries by streamlining manpower. He has also promised to end the policy of largess for North Korea until it agreed to halt its nuclear weapons program.

Judging by protesters’ slogans, they strongly oppose these policy changes as much as they do American beef. Even after the June 21 compromise agreement in Washington, they have refused to lower their demand for ousting President Lee from office. Indeed, they seem to be reinforcing their domestic political issues, calling for rolling back state sector privatization and restructuring schemes that would inevitably conflict with the interests from the unions and other parties.

To counter criticisms that his government is a regime of the wealthy, with scant willingness to protect the poor, Lee has changed most of his close presidential advisors, including Kim Byung Kook, a senior secretary in charge of foreign policy and security. This mild mannered university professor, however, turns out to be an innocent victim of the purge: he reportedly inherited much of his wealth from his prosperous newspaper publishing family.

But the center-left opposition United Democratic Party, playing politics with the beef issue, is boycotting parliament, demanding an entire renegotiation of the beef deal. It is piling more pressure on President Lee to change his three-month-old cabinet, chiefly aiming at Prime Minister Han Seung Soo.

Han, a technocrat widely criticized by civic organizations for changing his political coat from the UDP to Lee’s conservative Grand National party, also remains Lee’s most unpopular choice. Han is defending himself against a slew of accusations involving ethical breaches such as property market speculations. Han maintains he has broken no law in doing so. This tends to underscore the point that the whole issue is not so much over American beef as it is over domestic political discontent, specifically over President Lee's choice of his cabinet members. It is a question of public perception over his leadership rather than the dander from Mad Cow disease.

According to Yonhap News Agency, Lee is inclined to retain his prime minister in the hope of upholding continuity of his government. Besides, he needs an aide experienced in international resources diplomacy vital to shield Korea from the turbulent global energy markets, and Han has international exposure to make this posible, analysts say. In truth, however, Lee lacks leverage to reist the opposition campaign, as he stands essentially incapable of firing or hiring his cabinet officials under the current parliamentary boycott. All cabinet appointments require parliamentary approval, so any new cabinet reshuffle that Lee submits must be approved by the new National Assembly, which is in a vegetative state, however.

To break out of the parliamentary gridlock, Lee needs as much opposition support as he possibly can muster. Against this backdrop, the question of how long he can keep Han onboard appears largely academic. With public support for Han so negative (the country's biggest civic organization, the Coalition of Participatory Democracy, vows to unseat him at all cost), whatever action taken against the prime minister will in the end determine the future stability of his young administration, analysts say. Lee’s dependence on the UDP for the smooth operation of his government brings more uncertainty to his flagging leadership at this time of global economic downturns.