U.S. Beef Flap Challenges South Korea's President After an estimated 80,000 people demonstrated Tuesday against South Korea's plan to resume importing U.S. beef, the president promised that his government would make a fresh start — and his entire Cabinet offered to resign.
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U.S. Beef Flap Challenges South Korea's President

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U.S. Beef Flap Challenges South Korea's President

U.S. Beef Flap Challenges South Korea's President

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne. The Center of South Korea's capital was lit up last night as many tens of thousands of demonstrators carrying candles protested the government's decision to allow American beef back into the country. Before it was banned after a scare about mad cow disease five years ago, South Korea was the third largest importer of U.S. beef. And what began with high school students concerned over mad cow disease has swelled into a major challenge to the South Korean government. BBC correspondent John Sudworth is in Seoul and joined us to talk about it.

What was the scene there in Seoul yesterday and through the night?

Mr. JOHN SUDWORTH (BBC): Well, Renee, I think the Chosun Ilbo, South Korea's best-selling daily newspaper, sums it up best. It says in an editorial this morning that foreigners watching the rally last night must've thought that some kind of revolution was taking place. The whole of the downtown area shoulder-to-shoulder with people, some estimates putting the numbers as high as 400,000, although the police saying that quite a smaller number were involved.

But still, remarkable scenes. People holding these candles that have become the symbol of this protest against imports of U.S. beef. Don't forget, these protests began as fairly small-scale, nightly candle-lit vigils but have now become something of a mass movement.

And it's fair to say they really have rocked the government. Yesterday, amid these extraordinary scenes, we had the news that the whole cabinet has tendered their resignations. Every member of the cabinet has offered to resign as a result of these protests. And it really does give you a sense of just how deep the political crisis that the government finds itself in is.

MONTAGNE: This is not, though, just about U.S. beef imports, worried as South Koreans appear to be about mad cow disease. This involves a lot of other issues, doesn't it?

Mr. SUDWORTH: Well, I think if you speak to the protestors, they say that first and foremost, this is a demonstration and a movement about food safety. Essentially, the focus of these protests has become the rather technical issue of whether cattle aged over 30 months - whether beef from these older cattle should be imported into Korea. Protestors want these older cattle excluded from the beef-import agreement - out of wild rumors circulating here, for example, that Americans don't eat beef from older cattle.

Remarkable the number of protestors you speak to who hold that view. And yet all the evidence suggests, of course, that Americans do eat beef from cattle over the age of 30 months, have done for years. It's considered perfectly safe. And I think a lot of people have said that perhaps to some degree, the protests have become a vehicle for wider political discontent about the government, a government that has only been in power for a few months but has rapidly seen its popularity evaporate. And I suppose these protests really have become now a kind of catch-all outlet for an expression of wider frustration.

MONTAGNE: To put this in perspective, this demonstration is the largest, it appears, in the capital since the 1980s, and in the 1980s protestors basically forced out the then-military government or forced it to change to a democracy. What's likely to take place now? I mean, is there concern the South Korean government will actually collapse?

Mr. SUDWORTH: Well, a lot of the protestors are drawing those parallels with the democracy movement of 21 years ago. I think it's unlikely that this is a real threat to the position of the president himself. As I say, the cabinet has offered its resignation. It's yet to be clear whether the president will accept any or all of those resignations. But it still remains to be seen how he is going to solve the bigger issue.

The protestors want him to renegotiate the agreement with the Americans over the imported beef, essentially tear up this agreement. But the government and the U.S. government have both said, you can't do that. This is an international agreement signed under World Trade Organization rules. It's simply not possible just to rip it up. So he is in a bit of a corner. But I think it's too early to say it's a real threat to the government just yet.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much.

Mr. SUDWORTH: It's a pleasure.

MONTAGNE: John Sudworth is a BBC correspondent. He joined us this morning from Seoul, South Korea.

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