The dramatic images of the protests in South Korea over imports of US beef made us wonder about the source of the unrest.
South Korea banned US beef imports in 2003 after the first case of mad cow disease was discovered in Washington state. About 50 other countries did the same, according to a New York Times article, including Japan and Taiwan. The article suggests that the Agriculture Department's defensive stance in reaction to the event made many suspicious of the industry.
Matters weren't helped when Japan lifted the ban in late 2005, only to reinstate it less than a month later because backbone was found in a shipment of veal, which violated the trade agreement.
South Korea's president Lee Myung-bak came into office in December with the priority of rebuilding economic and political ties with the United States. (A December Times article says his predecessor won largely with the support of nationalistic and often anti-American voters.)
In April President Lee lifted the ban on US beef imports that had been in place for five years. American and South Korean officials say the beef is safe, and in September the World Organization for Animal Health ruled that American beef didn't post a health risk.
The Times says fears surfaced in Seoul after it was discovered that their president had agreed to a less restrictive import deal with Washington than Taiwan or Japan had. South Koreans have exclaimed that the public will be exposed to mad cow disease, and they say the issue demonstrates Mr. Lee's inability to stand up to Washington.
The USDA website explains that the risk of mad cow disease in the US is low, but the government has taken steps to ensure food safety, such as preventing disabled cattle from reaching the food supply.
There has been unrest for the past six weeks, but yesterday's demonstration reached 100,000 according to police reports, and organizers said the crowds reached 700,000. President Lee's cabinet has offered to resign as a result, according to Reuters.
The demonstrators seem to be made up of people with diverse interests. The Times reported protesters included demonstrators who were in favor of a pending free-trade agreement with the US (which congress has said won't be passed unless South Korea opens its market to beef imports), but who are opposed to Mr. Lee's authoritarian style. The crowd also included people carrying anti-American slogans who vowed to protect the South Korean beef industry, and others who were unhappy with inflation, according to Reuters.
On Monday Mr. Lee sent a delegation to DC to amend South Korea's deal to exclude beef from cattle more than 30 months old, since it is believed mad cow is less likely to be present in younger cattle. Today, he has promised a reform to his government and will likely get rid of a few of his colleagues.
Incidentally, there was a much smaller demonstration in South Korea in support of the beef imports and free trade agreement.
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