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.
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.
Although conservatives control a majority of the Assembly seats, conservative members from rural areas are expected to oppose the beef deal and also the free trade agreement. President Lee hopes to get the Assembly to ratify the agreement in the next month or two, but one conservative member was quoted as saying "now is not a good time" to resume beef imports.
Militant labor unions and farmers groups have drafted action plans to keep American beef from reaching markets. The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, a powerful umbrella group under leftist leadership, calls the decision to import the beef "a declaration of war against the people," and promises to hold rallies beginning Tuesday in front of cold storage warehouses containing US beef.
The protest in Korea substantially diminishes chances of ratification of the free trade agreement by Congress. Although beef is not included in the agreement, many senators and congressmen say they cannot vote for it if beef is still excluded from Korean markets, where Australian and New Zealand beef is sold at prices far below those for Korean beef.
Prospects for an FTA suffered a severe blow this month when Barack Obama, the leading candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, wrote President Bush, saying the FTA is "badly flawed" and advising him not to send the agreement to Congress for ratification.
Mr. Obama, basing his criticism in part on complaints from the US motor-vehicle industry, said the deal "would give Korean exports essentially unfettered access to the US market and would eliminate our best opportunity for obtaining genuinely reciprocal market access in one of the world's largest economies."
Larry Niksch, an Asia specialist at the Congressional Research Service, believes Obama's position means the free-trade agreement has "no chance" in Congress while Mr. Bush is in office. Sen. Hillary Clinton, Obama's competitor for the Democratic nomination, has already voiced her strenuous opposition.
Niksch notes, however, that Obama "keeps the door open to do something about the agreement, but probably in a modified way," if he is elected president.
Given the emotions in both Korea and the US, Donald Gross, adjunct fellow of the Pacific Forum of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says "the best course would be if the current US administration were to hold off" on pressing for passage of the free-trade agreement.
"No one who cares about the US-South Korean relations wishes to see this thing go down to flaming defeat," says Mr. Gross. "For this to be voted down is very painful for the whole relationship." Thus, he says, "my personal hope is for it not to be submitted to the U.S. Congress."