South Koreans' Beef Over Beef

  • Share
  • Read Later
Kim Jae-Hwan / AFP / Getty

Riot police blast water at protesters to disperse the rallying crowds near the presidential house in Seoul

"President Lee treats us like we are the enemy," says 23-year-old Shin Seung Jin, pointing to the 30-foot-high stack of shipping containers positioned by the police on Seoul's best-known boulevard Tuesday morning. The purpose of the barricade is to block protesters like Shin from marching about half a mile down the road to the Blue House, South Korea's seat of power. "This is too extreme," says the student, who joined tens of thousands of other demonstrators, including trade union members, housewives, high school students, salarymen and opposition political activists, in the largest so-called "beef protest" thus far.

Shin and his fellow protesters are furious with President Lee Myung Bak for concluding a deal with Washington back in April to lift the ban on importing U.S. beef, which much of the Korean public believes is prone to mad-cow disease. Once the third-largest export market for U.S. beef, Korea imposed the ban in 2003 after the disease was detected in American cattle. "I'm worried for him," says Yang Meehwe, 41, referring to her 6-year-old son, who holds her hand. "What happens in 10 years if he eats infected beef?" she asks as protesters chant "Down with Lee Myung Bak." On Yang's T shirt a huge sticker condemns another of Lee's actions, a proposal to build a canal from Seoul to Busan.

For many of the protesters who have joined candlelight vigils in downtown Seoul for the past month, the complaint is about a lot more than beef; it's about how President Lee, the country's first CEO President and first conservative leader in a decade, has been running the country since he took charge a little over 100 days ago. Under fire are Lee's policies on everything from the grand canal and the planned privatization of state-owned companies to his hard-line stance toward North Korea. "Beef is a lightning rod for everyone who has a beef with President Lee," says Tami Overby, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Seoul.

With no sign of the protests abating, Lee's entire cabinet and the Prime Minister offered to resign on Tuesday. Last week, his presidential secretaries also volunteered to throw in the towel to curb unrest. So far, Lee's government has temporarily suspended shipments of U.S. beef until Korea can secure a deal to keep the meat of cattle older than 30 months from entering the country. The embattled Lee also apologized to the public last week for failing to grasp their concerns, and won an assurance from President George W. Bush over the weekend that the U.S. would take measures to avoid exporting older beef to Korea. "We hope this will allay fears and concerns of those worried about food safety," Lee told TIME in an interview last week. "I fully understand when young mothers come to the streets to protest and demonstrate, because this is a matter concerning the health and safety of their children," he said.

Thus far, however, Lee's efforts have failed to ease the turmoil. Part of the reason, says Lho Kyongsoo, a professor of international politics at Seoul National University, is "the deep ideological struggle" gripping South Korea. "This is a very conservative government who won by a majority, but not a convincing majority," Lho says. "We've had over 10 years of left and radical left in power." The opposition parties are calling for the government to completely renegotiate the deal, a demand that gives Lee a real dilemma, since the U.S. has insisted that the ban on its beef imports be lifted before it ratifies a free-trade agreement between the two countries.

So what are the options available to Lee to calm the waters? Appointing a few new faces to his cabinet could help take the sting out of the protests by signaling that changes are being made. A concession from the U.S. — possibly an agreement to reopen the entire matter for discussion — would certainly help Lee and deflect the danger of the protests turning anti-American. But Lee also has to avoid making too many concessions to the protesters, lest he be seen as giving veto power over his government's decision-making to the parliament of the streets. Already, his public approval rating has dropped by more than half, to around 20%. At the very least, says Cheong Inkyo, an economics professor at Inwha University in Seoul, the public wants to see that he has tried. The safe bet is that he'll continue to throw his detractors another bone in the hope that eventually, they'll go home.