South Korea’s New Beef with U.S.


The recent discovery of a case of mad cow disease in a U.S. dairy cow has reignited an old, passionate debate in South Korea. Citing concerns over public health, a backlash has come against the government for not following through with a 2008 pledge to stop importing U.S. beef if mad cow disease is discovered. But candlelight protests held this week in Seoul also shed light on relations between the U.S. and South Korea more generally, and the reality that military, political and commercial ties are marked by stubborn historical tensions that can be triggered by issues that prove surprisingly emotive.

Controversy in South Korea over U.S. beef isn’t new, but has been largely dormant for the past four years. In 2008, the then new Lee Myung-bak government agreed, after extensive negotiations, to restart imports, which had been halted since cases of mad cow disease were found in the United States in 2003.

That decision set off a firestorm of controversy, leading hundreds of thousands of citizens to come out in the spring and early summer of 2008 in protest over the resumed imports. Sensationalist media reports and online rumors fueled speculation that the new president was recklessly putting South Koreans’ health at risk of contracting bovine spongiform encephalopathy, better known as mad cow disease.

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 The issue has been mostly quiet since then, with most South Koreans choosing to eat the more widely available Australian beef or the domestic beef, known as hanwoo. This week’s protests coincide with the four-year anniversary of the 2008 demonstrations.

At the May 2 protest, South Koreans carried signs that read, “We can’t live like this” and “Lee Myung-bak: resign.” The fact that protestors chose to light candles is a sign of the seriousness they attach to the beef issue. Around 4,000 armored riot police lined the streets in front of the police buses that transported them. The security appeared to be an exaggerated response to an exaggerated concern.

“We’re here because we want to get rid of our president,” says Jeong Yoon-shik, a university student. “The government just wants to expand its own power; they aren’t concerned about citizens.”

The reaction to the beef issue is fuelled in part by widespread displeasure with the Lee government, which is often accused of being corrupt and elitist. In an effort to quell public discontent in 2008, the politically vulnerable Lee promised in newspaper advertisements that imports of U.S. beef would be halted in the future if another case of mad cow surfaced in the United States. The protestors at this week’s protests are incensed that a case was indeed discovered, and yet imports are continuing.

But Lee would have a tough time stopping imports even if he really wanted to. Under the terms of the 2008 bilateral agreement, South Korea can’t stop importing U.S. beef simply because a case of mad cow is discovered – imports can’t be suspended as long as the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) maintains the U.S. status as a “controlled risk” country.

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