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Koreans Have Beef With Korean Americans

New America Media, News Report, Kenneth Kim Posted: May 12, 2008

Editors Note: On Wednesday, South Korea will resume imports of U.S. beef, after banning it in 2003 for fear of mad cow disease. The decision to resume has alarmed some Koreans, so much so, they have been on the streets protesting. New America Medias Kenneth Kim reports on the torn loyalties of Korean Americans.

LOS ANGELES -- Tens of thousands of South Koreans have been hitting the streets of Seoul in the past weeks to protest their governments decision to resume U.S. beef imports. Suddenly, Korean Americans have found themselves at odds with public opinion in the motherland.

Last week, Korean American community organizations across the United States held meetings to rebut the South Koreans protests over the safety of U.S. beef and to clarify misunderstandings. At a press conference in Los Angeles, the immigrant community leaders tried to assure South Korean journalists that U.S. beef is one of the safest in the world and that the spreading rumors in Korea about the dangers of mad cow disease from U.S. beef was baseless scaremongering.

Korean Americans, who share the same blood with the motherlands people, consume everyday the beef from the cattle raised, slaughtered and processed in the United States. In 105 years of Korean American immigration history, there has been not a single incident where a Korean American died of mad cow disease, noted Yong Tae Lee, a medical doctor.

When the media in South Korea reported the immigrant response, there was a backlash against Korean Americans from the homeland. Its similar to American Jews being attacked for criticizing Israels Palestinian policy.

Proving its position as the most wired country in the world, Korean cyberspace has crackled with South Koreans disappointment towards the immigrants. They accuse Korean Americans for not standing up for Korea, or worse of being a lapdog of the American government. One reader of JoongAng Ilbo, a major daily newspaper in South Korea, wrote in the comment section, Korean Americans are those who would aim guns at us if Korea goes to war against the United States.

Few critics approached their targets directly.

Few strangers who recognized me in the streets after watching a TV interview expressed their anger, said Moon Ki Nam, president of Los Angeles Korean American Federation, who spoke boldly about the Korean Americans' belief in the safety of U.S. beef. In numerous interviews with South Korean media, he tried to persuade Koreas public opinion.

Some Koreans are demanding a blind loyalty from Korean Americans, said Nam, who is visiting the country on a business trip.

The controversy over U.S. beef unfolded last month when, just hours before its 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 old was 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.

Seoul slightly eased the restrictions in 2006, by allowing only boneless beef from cattle under 30 months old. But resistance remained. According to polling group Open Access May 2 survey, close to 80 percent of South Koreans believe U.S. beef is unsafe, and called for renegotiation of the beef imports. They see the agreement as a concession to the United States interests at the expense of public health and domestic livestock industry.

Having been agitated for a month by rumors and the unconfirmed news reports of citizen journalists, the volatile situation ignited after a prominent TV 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 contacted a human variation of mad cow disease.

In recent weeks more than 40,000 citizens, and junior and high school students staged candlelight vigils in Seoul and called for their government to nullify the agreement of U.S. beef imports. They held candles and chanted anti-South Korean government and anti-U.S. slogans. Although large, the protests have been peaceful.

Opposition political parties were quick to seize the opportunity and pushed the issue. Conceding to them, a congressional hearing has been convened.

Conservatives were alarmed because the candle light vigils have brought back the nightmare of anti-American protests in 2002. Two junior schoolgirls were hit and killed by a U.S. army armored vehicle during a military exercise, and thousands swarmed the streets of Seoul and staged candle light vigils. This stirred a very strong anti-U.S. sentiment and gave the birth to a left-wing government.

As the tension kept mounting in South Korea, the U.S. Department of Agriculture convened an unusual Sunday press conference for Washington D.C. correspondents of South Korean news media last week. U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab told them that the beef that American producers will be selling in Korea is the same beef probably everyone in this room probably ate for lunch.

The South Korean government has tried to quell the outcry. After top bureaucrats pleaded with the public, South Korea's president even came forward to assure them of the safety of U.S. beef. Countering the criticism that South Korea can only halt imports if the World Organization for Animal Health downgrades its safety rating for American cattle, President Lee even said the government will immediately stop the imports if it endangers public health, although the move may violate the bilateral agreement.

Despite these efforts, public demonstrations continue and the chasm between the Korean American community and their motherland deepens. On the L.A. Korean American Federations website, dozens of South Koreans have posted writings denouncing Korean Americans.

According to Kye Young Park, an anthropology professor at Univ. of California, Los Angeles labeling Korean Americans as inconsiderate of the motherlands interest is an act of misunderstanding of the fluid dynamics of the immigrant community.

Although Korean Americans have largely aligned with culture and overall opinions of Korea, I suspect, their positions in regard to interests of the adopted country, and the country of origin, are not rigid, said Park.

Related Articles:

South Korea Maintains Ban on U.S. Beef Imports

Taiwanese Consumers Reject U.S. Beef on Mad Cow Fears

The Mad Cow Was Not Kosher

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