Features | Society | East Asia

South Korea’s New Beef with U.S.

The announcement of a new case of mad cow disease in U.S. beef has sparked protests. But they say as much about mistrust of any ally than about food safety.

By Steven Borowiec for

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.

 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.

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“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.

So instead of stopping imports, the Lee government vowed to conduct quarantine inspections of 50 percent of incoming American beef; only 3 percent was inspected before this case came up. Critics say the inspections are pointless because all inspectors do is look over the beef, and they say there’s nothing about beef infected with mad cow that makes it visually distinguishable from safe beef. Mad cow disease can only be diagnosed after analysis of tissue samples.

Still, South Korea only imports beef from cows younger than two and a half years; the infected U.S. dairy cow found recently was ten years and seven months old. Some major South Korean retailers suspended sales of U.S. beef on April 24, but resumed them three days later. The South Korean Ministry for Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries announced on May 1 that sales of U.S. beef had dropped 20 percent since the case of mad cow was announced. Overall sales of beef in South Korea rose 3.3 percent over the same period.

But the reality is that this isn’t just about beef – it’s also about the traditional South Korean gripe that the country is both vulnerable to, and disrespected by, the United States. Any dispute where it is the U.S. that is seen as the villain and collaborator has broad appeal among South Koreans. The Lee administration has been at the center of a succession of scandals involving dishonesty and corruption, but none of those mobilized South Koreans in quite the same way as the U.S. beef issue. This case feeds into the idea that the conservative ruling party is beholden to the United States, and willing to risk South Korean public health to maintain good standing with Washington.

The current South Korean government, which will be replaced after December’s presidential election, simply isn’t trusted. “The government says that only one cow out of 40,000 was infected, but how do we know that for sure?” asks Lee Yo-sang, chairperson of Citizens for Media Autonomy, a civic group. “It could have been more than that, so imports should be stopped and the government should clearly share all the facts with citizens.”

Indeed, some South Koreans believe they have a genetic susceptibility to mad cow disease. The 2008 protests were stoked by a TV report by South Korea’s Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation in which the risks of mad cow were exaggerated. The network later admitted to deliberately misrepresenting the situation.

South Koreans also have a particular interest in the disease, according to a recent study by the Dong-a Ilbo newspaper. Using Google Search Insight, Dong-a Ilbo found that South Koreans search online topics related to mad cow disease more than people from any other country; terms such as “humans with BSE” and “BSE related deaths” were particularly popular searches.

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Such fear is likely to keep this issue close to the center of South Korea public discourse for some time. But the underlying trust of both the current government and the United States mean that the frustrations that lay beneath the protests will likely be around long after any more cases of mad cow disease are reported.

Steven Borowiec is a South Korea-based writer. His work has appeared in The Guardian, The Toronto Star and Asia Sentinel, among other publications. Youmi Kim contributed to this report.