By: Peter M. Beck
Submitted to the Weekly Standard 18 June 2008 [846 words]
Over a million South Koreans have poured into the streets in recent weeks to protest the return of American beef to the Korean dinner table. Fears of mad cow disease have sparked the largest demonstrations since Korea democratized two decades ago. Given that not a single American has contracted the disease since a handful of cases were discovered in 2003, the protests appeared to be a massive over-reaction, but the causes of the demonstrations run much deeper than just food safety concerns. Washington must take steps quickly to help Korea's struggling president to avoid collateral damage to the alliance.
The protests began soon after Seoul's new president, Lee Myung-bak, pledged to fully open the Korean beef market on the eve of his first meeting with President Bush in April. Lee was trying to rejuvenate an alliance that had faltered in recent years as well as remove the remaining roadblock to a free trade agreement with the U.S. Lee returned from his warm meeting with Bush at Camp David only to watch his popularity plummet in the face of accusations that he had ignored public sentiment and was being too generous with Washington. Sensational claims on a popular investigative TV show on the dangers of American beef led to a firestorm among students on the Internet.
Thus, a protest movement was born. Students have long been the conscience of Korea, but relinquished that role in the 1990s as they became increasingly violent and democracy took hold. Today, instead of relying on the Molotov cocktails that I dodged as a foreign student in Korea in the 1980s, peace candles have become the preferred weapon. The students came out not so much to rebel against the government but rather to express their exasperation with Korea's hyper-competitive education system. Having witnessed countless demonstrations during my six years in Korea, I did not take them very seriously at first. I suspect the Blue House made this critical mistake as well.
Widespread public perception of President Lee as being arrogant and out of touch, coupled with growing anxieties about the economy (especially skyrocketing fuel prices), gradually drew office workers and parents with strollers into the streets for the first time in a generation. The protests reached a crescendo on 10 June when hundreds of thousands (the precise number is still disputed) came out to peacefully protest. Despite the ostensible focus being American beef, anti-Americanism has been absent—so far. Nor has frustration with the government's tougher approach toward North Korea been a factor. Equally surprising, the demonstrations have not been a vehicle for the liberal opposition parties to take the political process to the streets, given that they were routed in National Assembly elections just two months ago. Instead, protestors have repeatedly told opposition leaders to "go back to the National Assembly." Indeed, the protests have lacked a public face. Even the umbrella group stoking the demonstrations was hastily formed after the fact.
Is the U.S. facing a lame duck president for the next four years and nine months until a new Korean president is scheduled to take office? President Lee has been painfully slow in carrying out the ritualistic cleansing of his cabinet and presidential secretariat—up to two dozen heads could roll in the coming days. However, this is unlikely to boost his rock-bottom popularity. Instead, he will need to discard the top-down management skills he honed as the president of Hyundai Construction and find a way to connect with voters.
While this is largely a domestically-driven crisis and little anger has been directed against the U.S., the Bush Administration has appeared tone-deaf at times to Seoul's pleas for help. Washington should not forget that the first candlelight demonstrations were held six years ago in the wake of the mishandling of the accidental deaths of two school girls by the U.S. military during training exercises.
Two delegations from Seoul have visited Washington so far, but both have experienced intense resistance to modifying the beef deal. The Lee Administration has replaced its calls for "renegotiating" the FTA with "additional negotiations," but Washington has been reluctant to give ground for fear of undermining other trade negotiations. The largest beef producers have promised to send only beef made from cows less than 30 months old, which is thought to be safer than that of older cows, but it is unclear if this will be enough to assuage Korean concerns. Images of "downer cows" and massive beef recalls have done little to instill the Korean public's trust in American beef.
The stakes could not be higher for finding a mutually agreeable solution. South Korea was America's third leading market for beef, worth over $800 million in sales, when the ban on American beef went into effect five years ago. More importantly, Seoul is one of America's leading economic partners with over $70 billion in trade expected this year. On the security front, Seoul is one of a handful of countries that has also sent troops to both Iraq and Afghanistan in support of U.S. war efforts.
Delaying implementation of the accord and/or keeping the most problematic types of beef off Korean shelves would cost little, but greatly improve America's image. Lee's mistakes present an opportunity for the Bush Administration to show President Lee and the Korean public that America is a friend indeed.
See Beck's Jan. 2007 Article