Posted by: Ihlwan Moon on May 15, 2008
At first blush, a delay in South Korea’s resumption of U.S. beef imports in the face of vociferous public protests may appear yet another instance of emotional nationalism in the way of a deal, which makes business sense. But although it certainly displays Korean interest groups’ tendency to take to the streets to push for their demands, President Lee Myung Bak’s administration is not free from blame for the mess it created.
Controversies and protests have raged in Korea since last month when Seoul struck a deal with Washington to lift restrictions on U.S. beef imports, shortly before Lee was scheduled to have his first summit with President George W. Bush. Surely, Lee was under pressure to conclude a beef deal as U.S. lawmakers had made it clear that Congress would not approve a sweeping free trade deal with Korea unless Seoul fully opened its market to U.S. beef. It’s also understandable that the pro-U.S. Korean leader wanted to have some tangible results from his talks with Bush. (Click here for some facts about the Korean beef market prepared by Reuters)
The problem was the lack of efforts on Lee’s part to communicate with his own people. His negotiating team left an impression among many Koreans that the issue of the safety of the product was not properly addressed although U.S. had a record of an outbreak of mad cow disease in 2003. One Korean official says the probability of a human being catching a mad cow disease by eating U.S. beef is like the one of a golf player scoring a hole-in-one and then being killed by lightning.
Maybe. But Lee’s government didn’t try to convince Koreans about the safety of U.S. beef. The mad cow disease is particularly sensitive in Korea as dishes using cow bones and intestines—potentially more hazardous parts — are regarded as delicacies. Now Lee, nicknamed the “bulldozer”, may be wise to reconsider his style of railroading through his agenda. Lee’s popularity rate has fallen to mid-20s in May from almost 60% early March. His hurried approach to better ties with the U.S. is backfiring, particularly among Korean teenagers, who are actively taking part in street protests these days.