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South Koreans Have a Beef

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Issue: 53 Section: International News Geography: East Asia South Korea Topics: trade agreements, trade

July 23, 2008

South Koreans Have a Beef

Crackdown on demonstrations against US beef imports

by Kim Petersen

Police have detained hundreds in protests that have reached an estimated half a million people. Photo: Dax Melmer/cc 2.0

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA -- On June 28, a crowd of at least 13,000 (some estimates report 30,000) gathered near the city hall in Seoul to protest the government’s decision to allow US imports of beef to South Korea. The issue is huge in South Korea, where a June 10 demonstration-–which coincided with the 21st anniversary of the demonstrations that toppled the country's military dictatorship-–drew out up to half a million protesters.

The latest demonstration came on the heels of US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s visit to Seoul. Rice vouched, “I can only say that American beef is safe and that we hope in time the South Korean people will listen to that, and will be willing to listen to what their government is saying and what we are saying.”

On June 2, the thoroughfare of Sedong Street, which ends at the landmark gate of Gwanghwamun, was lined with over 100 buses that had been converted to transport vehicles with barricaded windows for riot gear-clad police. The fleet of buses, many marked with graffiti, were arranged to impede access to sections of Sejong Street, where the US embassy is located.

Later that night, when people tried to break through the bus barricades, the police used water cannons and reportedly detained more than 130 demonstrators.

President Lee Myung-bak of the Grand National Party, elected with 48.7 per cent of the vote in December 2007, has borne the brunt of South Korean anger during a growing number of demonstrations.

In April 2008, Myung-bak proposed lifting prohibitions on US beef imports, prohibitions that had been imposed in 2003 after a case of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE or mad cow disease) was discovered in the US. Many South Koreans have reacted strongly against the perceived risks of BSE, which have been inflamed by Korean media.

In June, the pressure was such that Myung-bak's entire cabinet offered to resign in response to the street protests.

A senior policeman who wished to remain anonymous said, “The demonstration is okay if it is done in the proper manner with permission, not in the middle of the street, stopping cars and causing problems.”

The organizers, who addressed the milling crowd throughout the evening, emphasized that the demonstration should remain peaceful. Dozens of young men wearing military fatigues were present at the demonstration. Having completed their compulsory military service, they now call themselves the Guardians of the Citizens. They say they’re protecting the people from the state.

One of the Guardians, Kim Jin-kang, said the protestors were there “because the president has been lying...about the Great Canal and American beef.”

Much of the media has portrayed the protests as being solely about imports of US beef, but many voiced concern about the Great Canal project. The project proposes the construction of three great canals connecting four large rivers, and the city of Busan in the southeast with Seoul in the northwest.

A slim military officer, who wished to remain anonymous, manned an information table about the Great Canal project and said he was opposed to the project because of the environmental destruction it would entail. He saw Korean conglomerates as the only winners from the project.

Pak Jong-ju, who manned a table for the Korea Socialist Party, said he was at the demonstrations because of injustice. “The US and Korea alliance is a critical issue in Korea,” said Pak, who saw the protests rooted in a great polarization in South Korean society among those who support an alliance with the US and those who seek independence from the US.

Jong-ju is opposed to the “free trade” agreement between South Korea and the US. “There are a lot of rules with FTA [Free Trade Agreement] that oppress freedom of human beings, and favour business over government,” he said.

An elderly man who called himself “Mr. Korea” said the Great Canal had been added to the backside of the FTA. He believed that although most Koreans opposed the canal project, they would support the FTA if it was along the same terms as NAFTA.

Standing in the crowd was Kim Ji-hyun. She said she was against both US beef imports and the Great Canal project. She saw beef as a “life and death” issue and expressed contempt for the president.

Many demonstrators could be seen carrying slogan-bearing red cards printed by the Candlelight Movement of Korea that echoed these sentiment: “Who are you protecting with the power that we give you?” and “How can you let us down like this?”

A large white banner with blue lettering that hung high across the wide expanse of Sejong Street proclaimed: “Someday, this road will surely demonstrate the last days of a man who denied [that the] Republic of Korea’s state power originates from its people, but foolishly believed it comes from America, dirty richs [sic] and crap newspapers. Therefore, we will resist until our last breath to his idiotic ignorance, incompetence, irresponsible subterfuge, reckless beliefs, and ensure not to be victims of such.”

One Korean woman spoke of a Korean proverb that says a pot which boils quickly also cools quickly--something that the Myung-bak government is hoping for.

According to Agence France-Press, police blocked the rally planned for June 29 at Seoul Plaza before it could start, detaining 130 people and blocking nearby roads.

On June 30, investigators raided the office of the People's Association for Measures Against Mad Cow Disease and the office of the People's Solidarity for Korean Progress, seizing computers and other items, as well as arresting one organizer.

The following two weekends were relatively quiet and wet around Seoul city hall. The grass lawn has been replaced with new turf, and the vendors have disappeared. The season has changed. Middle- and high-school students who began the demonstrations are now out of school and an intense rainy period has deluged Seoul.

It seems that in the face of increasing government and police crackdowns, the boiling pot has cooled for now.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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