US-South Korea beef dispute escalates
Korean opposition protests the reopening of markets to US imports, threatening a free-trade agreement
Mounting protest in South Korea against the import of American beef signifies deepening opposition to the conservative rule of President Lee Myung Bak and could jeopardize a free-trade agreement seen as vital for relations between the two countries.Skip to next paragraph
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Experts here and in Seoul offer that view as Mr. Lee's foes battle in the National Assembly in Seoul and in Seoul's downtown streets against his government's resolve to live up to the deal, reached last month, to open up to US beef imports for the first time since they were banned five years ago after the diagnosis of "mad cow" disease in an American cow. Before the ban, Korea was the third-largest export market for US beef, which sells for far less than beef produced by Korean farmers.
The protest, which has escalated over the past month, appears to have caught officials in both countries by surprise. Many said that US-Korean relations were vastly improving after strains under the left-leaning presidents who ruled Korea for a decade before Mr. Lee's landslide election victory in December.
"Groups in Korea have made a big deal of beef for reasons that have nothing to do with science," says Victor Cha, director of Asian studies at Georgetown University in Washington and former Asia expert for the National Security Council. "The way the leftists have gone after Lee on beef, it's not beef or science at all. The left has got hold of this and beat him with it."
The debate will intensify in the next few days as the Korean government makes good on its agreement to open the market to nearly all US beef. More than a year ago, the government said it would open up to boneless beef, but imports were blocked after X-rays detected bone chips.
Agriculture Minister Chung Woon Chun promised to post new import standards on Tuesday as the first step to reopening the Korean beef market.
Mr. Chung said the ministry had delayed posting the new standards to review upward of 300 complaints on the need for action in case of "an additional outbreak of mad cow disease." He promised "all necessary steps to ensure that public health is not jeopardized."
His remarks, however, appear to have galvanized Lee's foes in a do-or-die stand against beef imports – and against a free trade agreement that needs ratification by both Korea's National Assembly and the US Congress.
"Do not even dream about fooling the public into eating dangerous American beef," Sohn Hak Kyu, leader of the opposition United Dramatic Party, was quoted as saying by Yonhap, the South Korean news agency.