South Korea Protests Target U.S. Beef, Closer Ties

South Korean protesters took to the streets this week, angry over a new trade deal that would allow the importation of U.S. beef. Fears of mad cow disease prompted a ban on U.S. beef several years ago. South Korean trade officials visiting Washington this week are hoping to reach a compromise that will calm fears at home.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Protesters in the tens of thousands took to the streets of South Korea this week. Many waved candles, some clashed with riot police. They're angry over a pending trade deal with the U.S. that would again allow U.S. beef imports. American beef has been banned there for several years now out of fears of mad cow disease. South Korean trade officials are in Washington this week. They're hoping to reach a compromise that will calm fears back at home.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn joins us now from Seoul.

Anthony, Seoul wants guarantees that the U.S. will not export older cows, cows that might possibly being infected with mad cow disease. Even if this happens, will that cool down the protests?

ANTHONY KUHN: I think it's pretty unlikely, Michele. First of all, both the South Korean and U.S. governments are very heavily committed to this larger trade deal of which the beef issue is just a part. And they say they're not going to renegotiate it. The protesters say that if the deal is not renegotiated, many of the civic groups who were involved may try to table some sort of impeachment motion against President Lee Myung-bak. And of course this goes way beyond the beef issue itself and so the protests are likely to continue. Tomorrow, for example, is the anniversary of an incident in which some American soldiers hit and killed two Korean girls in a traffic accident and there was great public anger when they were acquitted in 2003. So there are a lot of political anniversaries coming up which are going to propel the protests forward in the weeks and days ahead.

NORRIS: So as we said, these protests and this discontent runs far deeper than just the beef issue.

KUHN: Yes, that's right. And we have to say here that I think relations with the U.S. are a subtext and a part of this. Critics of the current President Lee Myung-bak say that he has become too cozy in his relationship with Washington and the U.S. and he did come into office after all promising to rebuild that relationship. And what he has done has been a great contrast to his predecessor, Roh Moo-hyun, who thought it was in South Korea's interest to have closer ties with North Korea and with Beijing. One of the things that Roh Moo-hyun did was to rearrange the defense relationship. So come the year 2012 something called the Combined Forces Command between the U.S. military and the South Korean military will be scrapped. And if there is a war - say, for example, between North Korea and South Korea, the South will have to command its own troops. So there's a real rearranging of the strategic relationship between the U.S. and South Korea.

NORRIS: President Lee Myung-bak won election by a very large margin but he seems very unpopular now. what happened?

KUHN: It was a startlingly short honeymoon. He came to office with a 70 percent approval rating. That's now down to 20 percent. He came promising to revive the South Korean economy with deregulation of industry and with privatizing of state-run firms, but he's dealing with huge rises in prices, particularly energy prices, unemployment and the political left wing has been very effective in mobilizing its followers to attack him over this. There is generally a sense now that he's lost the public's trust within just the first 100 days of his administration.

NORRIS: Anthony, beyond the diplomacy and the civil discontent, why are these American beef imports so important?

KUHN: Well, before this ban came around in 2003, South Korea was the third largest importer of U.S. beef. U.S. cattle producing states were quite dependent on this trade. So the U.S. lawmakers from these farm states now are adamant that the trade deal, which includes the resumption of the beef trade, must go through as negotiated. They do not want to see any rollback of this agreement. Both sides have invested a lot of effort in diplomatic prestige in seeing this trade deal go forward. And even for South Korea's government, for Lee Myung-bak, it's the centerpiece of his effort to revive the South Korean economy.

NORRIS: Anthony Kuhn, thanks so much.

KUHN: Thank you, Michele.

NORRIS: That was NPR's Anthony Kuhn speaking to us from Seoul.

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What's the Beef with U.S. Beef?

Top U.S. Beef Markets Abroad

This year, the U.S. has exported beef to 88 countries, according to the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.
The top four foreign markets are:

  • Mexico
  • Canada
  • Japan
  • Vietnam

South Korean protests over their government's decision to allow American beef back into the country escalated on Tuesday, with tens of thousands of demonstrators flooding the streets of the capital city of Seoul. Just a day earlier, in Washington, D.C., a senior group of diplomats from the South Korean agriculture ministry met with the United States Department of Agriculture to voice their concerns about U.S. beef.

South Korea was the world's third-largest importer of U.S. beef before it banned it over mad cow fears five years ago.

Before December 2003, annual beef imports to South Korea from the U.S. totaled $815 million. If beef imports are reinstated, the market there could grow to a $1 billion business — making it the largest consumer of U.S. beef, according to the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.

Here, a look at the uproar in South Korea and the objections there — and elsewhere — to U.S. meat imports.

Why was U.S. beef originally banned in South Korea?

In 2003, a cow in Washington state that had been imported from Canada, was diagnosed with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) — better known as mad cow disease. This spurred a number of countries, including South Korea, to ban imports of U.S. beef. Most — but not all — countries have since reestablished trade.

Why did South Korea decide to lift the ban this year?

In April, during his first official summit with President Bush, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak finalized a deal that would have eventually allowed a full range of U.S. beef to be shipped to South Korea. The deal was aimed at achieving a broader South Korean goal: a sweeping free-trade agreement with the U.S. Several U.S. lawmakers said they wouldn't approve the trade pact unless South Korea first reinstated U.S. beef imports.

Why has the decision to restart U.S. beef imports sparked such outrage?

Many South Koreans felt the deal failed to do enough to ensure food safety. But underlying the widespread protests is South Korean frustration with President Lee, a former businessman elected on a promise to pump up the Korean economy.

"Lee has behaved too much like a chairman of the board, acting imperiously and with little regard for pubic opinion on a number of issues, the most prominent of which has been the U.S. beef-import decision," writes Leonardo Martinez-Diaz, a political economy fellow for the Brookings Institution. On Wednesday, all members of Lee's Cabinet offered to resign in response to the mass demonstrations. Lee has not said whether he plans to accept their resignations.

What steps will the U.S. take to assure South Korea that American beef and other agricultural exports are safe?

U.S. agricultural officials say they stand by the safety of American beef. Keith Williams, a spokesman for the USDA, says federal inspectors are a fixture in meat plants in the U.S., examining daily operations as mandated by law. "Meat plants cannot operate unless there are U.S. inspectors right there in the plant," he says.

The World Organization for Animal Health has classified the U.S. as a "controlled risk nation" when it comes to mad cow disease — a designation that means a country has effective safeguards in place to ensure the safety of the meats it exports, according to the USDA's Web site.

Joe Schuele, spokesman for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, says, "We have all the control measures in place and have taken all the appropriate actions that we can take to control and eradicate the disease."

There have been three confirmed cases of mad cow disease in the United States. The first case, in December 2003, involved a cow that had been imported from Canada to Washington. The second and third cases involved cows native to the U.S.; these occurred in Texas in June 2005, and in Alabama in March 2006, according to the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.

Are there objections to U.S. meats in other foreign countries?

Yes. The European Union has a ban on beef raised with the use of hormones, which effectively bars most U.S. beef imports. U.S. beef that can be certified as hormone-free is allowed. In addition, the EU blocks imports of U.S. pork produced with a growth hormone. Since 1997, U.S. poultry treated with chlorine and other chemicals has also been banned. The annual loss in poultry revenue is approximately $220 million, according to the Foreign Agricultural Service U.S. Mission to the European Union.

"It's been a long and tortuous process that USDA has embarked on to try and reopen those markets," says Tony Corbo, a senior lobbyist with Food & Water Watch, a consumer safety group.

Japan has also banned imports of U.S. beef from cattle older than 21 months. The U.S., however, is negotiating to raise that limit to 30 months, Corbo says. Mad cow has rarely been detected in animals younger than 21 months, so many countries feel mad cow disease will not be a problem in animals younger than that. The United States' safety standards regard animals younger than 30 months as safe for consumption, since the number of cases in animals up to 30 months in age is still extremely small.

How do these objections affect the global market for U.S. beef?

U.S. beef exports have dropped from close to 10 percent of beef produced in 2003 — before the mad cow scare — to 6 percent today. In the first quarter of 2008, the U.S. exported 435 million pounds of beef, totaling $683 million, according to the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.

With additional reporting by NPR's Joe Palca.

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