Blast from the past: Where’s the beef?

Unearthed below is a post I wrote in 2009, regarding a visit to Seoul during an interesting and puzzling episode of mass protest in the capital of South Korea:

The great beef protests of June 2008. Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets, candles in hand, to denounce President Lee Myung-bak, less than four months after he took office in a landslide win. The occasion for the protests was Lee’s lifting of a ban on imports of U.S. beef, which were widely believed to be infected with mad cow disease. I was shocked that such a silly issue could precipitate such a huge outpouring of rage and hysteria, though in fairness, the demonstrators had a laundry list of other complaints against the government. It seems that Lee had outraged many Koreans by running roughshod over public opinion and governing in a very arrogant, heavy-handed way. In any case, I witnessed some of the candlelight protesting in Seoul on the night of June 7. I had no idea that any demonstrations were going on until I saw bands of riot police gathering on the streets. The sight was a little ominous:

After nightfall, it was easy to find the huge crowd of candle-wielding protestors. The shrill amplified voice of a woman screaming something about the president in a chant of ever-increasing pitch added a tinge of menace to the scene. Otherwise, the atmosphere was pretty relaxed, at least in my corner of the crowd. Many people were sitting on the ground and seemed to be having a good time. Violent clashes between police and protestors broke out in the course of the June demonstrations, but fortunately (or unfortunately) I wasn’t around to see any of that:

As it turns out, I visited right around the peak of the protests, which reached 80,000 people on June 10 before tapering off.

Why were they protesting? According to Wiki:

The 2008 US beef protest in South Korea was a series of protest demonstrations between 24 May 2008 and about 18 July 2008 in Seoul, Korea. At its height, the protest involved tens of thousands of people. The protest began after the South Korean government reversed a ban on US beef imports. The ban had been in place since December 2003, when the prion responsible for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or ‘mad cow disease’ was detected in US beef cattle.[1] The protests occurred on a background of talks concerning the US-Korea free trade agreement. Unrest was fanned by local media reports such as the Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) PD Notebook program, “Is American Beef Really Safe from Mad Cow Disease?” televised on 27 April 2008.[2]

Mass protests over beef never really made much sense to me, so here’s an explanation that goes deeper into the socio-political context:

It is often said that history has a way of repeating itself. The massive candlelight vigils against the re-importation of U.S. beef reveal a social earthquake rumbling through Korea. […]

Thousands have reemerged with relit candles in central Seoul. The vigils today are symbolically encapsulated by the now ubiquitous image of “candlelight girl,” a cartoon drawing of a young girl holding aloft a lit candle. It is a powerful and poignant image, especially considering the fact that the original 2002 vigils were for the two young girls, Mi-seon and Hyo-soon.

Also poignant is that students roughly the same age as Mi-seon and Hyo-soon sparked the current uproar. Those students, rightly or wrongly, fear that mad-cow tainted beef is being forced down their throats by an uncaring government. Akin to 2002, the students’ outcries have snowballed into a nationwide phenomenon encompassing diverse groups banding together to collectively demand reparations for perceived injustices. The political establishment has again been shaken to its core. […]

Yes, the issue that sparked the outcry was U.S. beef. And yes, there are some radical protesters who harbor anti-American sentiments. Anti-American sentiment may grow, depending on how the situation unfolds, but it does not reflect of the vast majority of protesters so far.

An interesting irony in the beef outrage is apparent through recent polling that shows the majority of the protesters still support the KORUS FTA and the benefits it may bring. Koreans on the streets may arguably be confused or conflicted, but to say that everyone bearing a lit candle is anti-American would be inaccurate.

However, if one listens to the chants of the protesters and the signs posted all over Seoul, it is apparent that the overriding anger of the populace has been squarely pointed at Lee, not at the United States.

At the outset of his term, his cabinet and secretarial appointments were a disaster. Now derisively nicknamed collectively after famous actresses “Kang Bu-ja” (pun using “Gangnam” and “bu-ja”, which means “wealthy” in Korean) or “Ko So-young” (pun referring to Lee cronies from Korea University, Somang Presbyterian Church or Yongnam Province), they presented an image of an elitist, “good old boy” network of people running the country.

The then-popular Lee vigorously set about with his agenda, pushing through policies that were not unanimously supported. Lee once told Bush that he was not the president, but the “CEO” of Korea. He was certain that disagreements over his plans could be overcome through his successful “bulldozing.” After all, he had done so at Hyundai Engineering and Construction and as Seoul mayor, specifically with the Cheonggyecheon project.

Therefore, the anger has more to do with Lee’s governing style than just simply the debate over whether American mad-cow was going to afflict the nation. The public resented the sense that Lee was the “CEO” and Koreans were merely employees expected to follow his orders. Somewhere along the way, his pledge to be a “servant to the people” got lost, and approval ratings below 20 percent reflect his extreme unpopularity. […]

President Lee has tried everything, to no avail. The en masse resignation of his secretariat and cabinet is unprecedented in Korean history, but it has been jeered by his opponents as a “political stunt.” Measures to ensure that 30-month-old U.S. beef will not enter the country are not placating the citizenry. Unpopular plans like the cross-country canal project and privatization of state firms have been shelved indefinitely, but, still, the people protest.

The fear is that the current vigils, which have so far taken on a somewhat festive atmosphere, may evolve into a socially precarious situation.

Seoul beef protests 2009

Seoul beef protests 2009

Seoul beef protests 2009


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *