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Beef Crisis Plagues South Korean Politics

New America Media, News Report, Kenneth Kim Posted: Jun 10, 2008

Editors Note: The beef crisis in South Korea and public distrust of some cabinet members and their mishandling of administrative affairs have forced the South Korean cabinet to resign collectively Tuesday. NAM Editor Kenneth Kim monitors Korean media and compiled this story.

SAN FRANCISCOTens of thousands of South Koreans hit the streets of Seoul and other major cities Tuesday night to protest their governments decision to resume U.S. beef imports. Meanwhile, South Koreas entire Cabinet offered to resign to take responsibility for it.

According to Korea Times, people from all walks of life―from students and workers to activistsjoined the protest. The coalition of civic groups claimed a million citizens participated nationwide, including 500,000 in Seoul alone, but police estimated the total number was closer to 200,000.


Joonang Daily reports that it was the largest protest rally since 1987, when anti-government rallies reached their zenith. Demonstrators shouted slogans demanding the resignation of the president who was inaugurated only about a hundred days ago, and held signboards saying Lee Myung-bak, Out and No mad cow to Korea.

During the protests, which marked the anniversary of the pro-democracy student uprising 21 years ago, minor scuffles broke out between the protesters and Lees supporters. No serious injuries or violence have been reported, according to Korean media.

South Korean police deployed more than 21,000 riot police and blocked the roads leading to the Blue House, the presidential residence, and the U.S. Embassy, with about 60 shipping containers, reports Korean and international news media.

The controversy over U.S. beef unfolded in April when, just hours before the South Korean president held his first summit with President George Bush, South Korea agreed to lift the ban on U.S. beef by scrapping nearly all quarantine regulations previously instated to guard against mad cow disease. Under the current agreement going into effect May 15, the ban on cattle under 30 months oldconsidered at greater risk of mad cow diseasewas also lifted.

South Korea, once the third-largest market for U.S. beef and beef variety meat exports, valued at $800 million, suspended American beef imports in 2003, after a case of mad cow disease was discovered in Washington state cattle. They feared the rare, fatal, brain-wasting human variant of mad cow disease that comes from eating meat from infected animals.

Having been agitated for a month by rumors and the unconfirmed news reports of citizen journalists, the volatile situation ignited after a prominent television station aired an investigative report. PDs Notebook, the Korean equivalent of 60 Minutes, cited a study by Korean scientists that Koreans possess a special gene that makes them more susceptible to mad cow disease. In addition, the program questioned the safety of U.S. beef by reporting a case involving a Virginia resident who possibly contracted a human variation of mad cow disease.

Since then, protests have taken place every day.

For the past 40 days, central Seoul has been rocked by demonstrations, which began as rallies of hundreds of teenage students, singing, dancing and holding candles to protest the import of American beef. They have now evolved into a protest against government policies on education, health care and consumer prices, reports New York Times.

President Lee, who won a landslide victory in last years electionlargely perceived as a recall on a liberal government for the failure of the economy and its egalitarian idealsnow struggles for the survival of his administration, if not his political future.

The approval rate of Lee, who, at 36, has led six affiliates of Hyundai and is an ex-mayor of Seoul, has plummeted below 20 percent.

Lees government said it has asked the United States not to export beef from older cattle, citing potential diplomatic and trade disputes. Also, Lee dispatched several official delegations to Washington on Monday to seek cooperation from the United States, and a few days ago, he and President Bush spoke over the phone, and Bush told Lee that the United States will ensure the safety of U.S. beef.

Materials from Korea Times, Joongang Daily, Associate Press and Reuters were used.

Photo credit: Korea Times

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