Just months after taking office, South Korean President Lee Myung Bak’s popularity plunged below 20%. People poured into the streets in unprecedented numbers – in the largest demonstrations in Korean history – to protest against him and his government. His cabinet offered to resign en masse, and he had to sack all seven members of the Blue House senior secretariat. He was forced to abandon key policies such as his plan to build a canal across the full length of the country. And he felt compelled to apologize, twice, for his policy blunders and “lack of communication skills.”

Having staked much on his visit to Washington in April, and having pledged to reinvigorate and upgrade the alliance with the United States, Lee exposed it instead to greater risk than his predecessor and was reduced to pleading with Washington to help him find a way out of his domestic problems. Instead of advancing his goal of a Free Trade Agreement, he stirred the opposition, including labor and religious groups, to anger, thus making his goal less, rather than more likely. By June, the lion of December had become, according to word on the street in Seoul, an “early duck” (an early bird turned lame duck).

And it all began with beef.

Moos and Boos

The connection between Mad Cow disease in animals and the brain-wasting Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans has been known since around 2000. Three cattle in the United States have tested positive for Mad Cow disease since 2003. South Korea first banned imports at that time, as did many countries. When the second case, in 2005, was covered up by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for seven months before being made public, consumer confidence further sank. Japan took to testing every single animal, to the great annoyance of the U.S. government. Korea, under intense U.S. pressure, adopted a “voluntary” system of restriction that banned the import of meat from animals older than 30 months as well as animal parts such as bones and internal organs. However, the first three shipments that followed these new restrictions supposedly contained these parts, so the “voluntary” system was plainly unsatisfactory.    

As part of the negotiations over a Free Trade Agreement, the U.S. side demanded the lifting of even Korea’s limited restrictions. By April, however, with the Korean presidential visit to Washington imminent, negotiations were at a standstill. According to Korean news reports, on the evening of April 17, Assistant Agriculture Minister (and chief negotiator) Min Dong-seok said that the two sides were “far apart” and the gulf was “too deep.” By early the following morning, however, a deal was struck. The Korean side capitulated. Lee Myung-bak decided to lift the ban either as the price paid for his invitation to Camp David and drive of the presidential golf-cart or as a quid pro quo to persuade the U.S. side to proceed with the Free Trade Agreement.  

South Koreans were outraged at the deal. During May and June, a protest movement sparked by high-school students grew and grew, reaching a peak of a million people out on the streets on June 10. The Korean government tried to defuse the crisis by re-opening negotiations, but the U.S. side insisted on honoring the April agreement. It agreed, however, to return to the system of voluntary restrictions, relying on the compliance of meat exporters until such time as Korean confidence was restored. President Lee explained that he expected the United States to “respect the will of the Korean people.” To the suspicious Korean people, however, it seemed that he was bowing to Washington on the one hand while in the streets of Seoul he was turning ruthlessly on the very people to whom he had apologized weeks earlier.  

Beef and the Food Crisis

The question is not just about beef but about health, safety, food security, and responsible, democratic governance. Food uncertainty grows around the world, with escalating prices, dwindling reserves, and spreading hunger, and with climate change reducing projections for future harvests in the global grain-basket countries. In the context of this deepening global food crisis, beef consumption is not a fundamental human right but the privilege of a tiny elite. Each kilo of meat they consume is the equivalent of around 8 kilos of grain, and requires a substantial volume of precious water to produce. Naturally, Koreans (or any people) may indulge a passion for beef eating by allocating their own land, water, and labor to it, but they can have no claim upon the global economy to such an entitlement. And if the global beef market is dominated by a country whose agriculture is so structured that dead animals are recycled as pellets of food for living ones, the very principles of free trade itself must be reconsidered – as the Koreans are doing.    

Like Japan, Korea is opting to depend on global food markets at precisely the moment when those markets are most fragile. Lee’s Korea now surpasses Japan in the bizarre statistic of food import dependence. The Japanese depend on imports for 61% of their food while the South Korean figure is now 74%. In fact, if rice is excluded, the Korean figure rises to an astounding 95% dependency.To stake so much on an FTA that would inevitably increase such figures seems scarcely rational.  

No sooner had Lee left Washington than Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice published an essay in Foreign Affairs in which she carefully distinguished between South Korea and countries such as Australia and Japan. With the latter, the United States enjoyed “a strong, democratic alliance” and with whom it could work to “secure and spread our values both in Asia and beyond.” South Korean, however, was merely “a global partner.” The clear implication was that South Korea had fallen in status to a second-tier country. When she went on to speak of its “inspiring journey from poverty and dictatorship to democracy and prosperity,” Koreans knew well that they had won their “democracy and prosperity” themselves, at great cost, while the United States had been the principal supporter of the dictatorship and had stood by silently while the people of Kwangju were slaughtered in 1980.  

Through the prism of beef, Koreans confront the limitations of key contemporary institutions: democracy, capitalism, and nationalism. Democracy offers a political choice every five years but cannot assure that the popular will prevails when it comes to key questions of livelihood. Capitalism translate into an absolute deference to the market at the expense of health, happiness and even life itself. And finally the beef affair has cast a spotlight on the inferior status of Korea vis-a-vis its ally and supposed protector, and thus even nationalism has not proved dependable.  

Ironically, Lee Myung Bak’s great early accomplishment has been to revive politics. The spontaneous movement begun by Korean school children has stirred the hearts and minds of thousands of individuals, civil organizations, religious, and labor groups. As the people either in their on-line or off-line “agora” opened fresh lines of communication and consultation, they generated a sense of shared purpose and political awareness that harkened back to the democratic struggles of the 1980s.  

Sadly, however, even as the Mad Cow fracas absorbs South Korean energies, the North Korean people sink toward famine. How must it look to them that the South Korean president concentrates on persuading people to trust his Washington “friend” and uncritically eat American beef while they, or many of them, eat grass and the bark of trees and while negotiations crucial to the future of the peninsula proceed with minimal South Korean input?

Gavan McCormack is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus (www.fpif.org) and an emeritus professor at Australian National University. His latest book is Client State: Japan in the American Embrace.

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