Note: After reading this post one more time before publishing, the Korean realized there are a lot more interesting things that he left out, such as how a protest happens in a fun way in Korea, how there were so many young students in the protests, and further ineptitude of the Korean right-wing politicos. And then after reading seven pages of draft, the Korean realized he was not getting paid for this. Readers, feel free to contribute on anything this post is missing.
The Korean refrains from talking about Korean politics too much, but this is an exception because it involves the U.S. very much. (But the Korean would bet anything that 95 percent of Americans have no idea about this – Americans are amazingly ignorant about how their own country affects the world.)
Right now there are nightly mass protests in the center of Seoul, gathering anywhere between ten to forty thousand people. Protesters often include students as young as early teenagers. The protests so far have been by and large peaceful, but there have been occasional bouts of violence and injury – there has been pushing and shoving on a mass scale trying to break down barricades, and the police has been using water cannons to suppress the protests, which have reportedly caused severe injuries in some cases, as seen in the pictures.
(As an aside, even though this is a protest involving tens of thousands of people, it is no riot – no indiscriminate violence, and absolutely no looting. Rather, it is more like a slightly disorganized festival, complete with song and dance, albeit politically charged. Koreans arguably have the most fun protests in the world.)
What are they protesting about? (The overly simplistic) Answer: mad cow disease from beef imported from the U.S. To understand this, a little bit of history is in order.
Background: The Sore Point of FTA
It all began with something called KORUS FTA – the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement. It was one of those groundbreaking events that everyone in Korea knew and no one in the U.S. knew. In many areas, the Korean and American governments agreed to remove tariffs and standardize products in order to promote trade. The negotiation took 14 months, and the agreement was signed on April 2, 2007.
KORUS FTA was generally very popular in Korea – in fact, it marked one of the few high points in the former president Roh Moo-Hyeon’s administration. It is also fair to say that from Korea’s point of view, KORUS FTA was very well negotiated, as Korea achieved some very important concessions from the U.S., such as removing tariffs on pickup trucks. However, there was a small yet well-established minority in who staunchly opposed the FTA – i.e. farmers. The agricultural sector in Korea was certain to be swamped by cheaper American product.
Once the agreement was finalized, it was submitted to each country’s legislature in order to be adopted into law. However, both parties agreed that they would leave certain sensitive parts out of the reach of KORUS. One such point was rice and beef import from the U.S., because there were a significant number of Korean farmers who would protest this cause to death. (And to death, the Korean means to death. Self-immolation in protest has been known to happen in this demographic. Linked article is in Korean.)
However, once submitted to the legislatures, the political circumstances of both U.S. and Korea began to change in a way that made the ratification of FTA difficult. On the American side, the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign machine began to run, and one of the battle fronts that the campaign decided to open was the KORUS FTA. As the U.S. economy was going further and further down the sinkhole, the Clinton campaign correctly saw that making economy an issue was a good selling point, and blaming the economic trouble on foreign trade is always an easy route to take for a politician. Because the U.S. did make significant concessions, it was easy to characterize KORUS as an unfair pact that hurts the American working class.
Following her lead, certain Congressmen and Senators vowed that unless Korea opens up its beef market, they would lobby against ratifying KORUS. Instead of ratifying right away as both parties hoped, a year would pass by without any action from either Korea or America.
On the Korean side, new president Lee Myeong-bak was sworn in, and the conservative Grand National Party returned to power after ten years out of the presidency. Because President Lee vowed to be an economy-first and business-friendly executive, everyone expected the approval of FTA would move on smoother on the Korean side. But it is fair to say that no one expected how badly the new administration would fuck up the process.
The Beef with the Negotiation
Korea actually imported a significant amount of American beef up to 2003. However, the first case of BSE (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, i.e. the Mad Cow Disease,) was discovered in the U.S. in Dec. 23, 2003, and that put the end of American beef export to Korea. (Remember all the craziness about mad cow disease in America? It was not too long ago, folks.)
Korean beef market did open up in 2006, but the import was limited to meat only, as BSE is known to be populated in soft tissues such as brain, eyes, certain parts of intestines, certain parts of stomach, and bone marrow in certain parts of vertebrae. There were several fusses over this requirement, as Korean customs repeatedly rejected entire shipments of U.S. beef because it discovered a bone chip in a size of a nail.
President Lee’s administration came in on beginning of 2008, and it needed a visible result right away to convince the people that it cared about the economy. To that end, ratifying KORUS took priority. And to ratify KORUS, the beef market had to open. Given the positive response to KORUS among Korean people, quickly taking care of the prerequisite for KORUS would receive a positive mark. Although protests from farmers would inevitably happen, the people would be behind the measure, especially since President Lee won the election by landslide – this must have been the thought process of the Lee administration.
This concern was compounded by the fact that President Lee would visit the U.S. in late April of this year. In order to personally pressure the U.S. Congress to act on FTA, the prerequisite for KORUS had to be satisfied, and satisfied quickly.
Therefore, on April 18 of this year, Korean government agreed to open its beef market at an undoubtedly favorable term for the U.S. Regarding mad cow disease, these were the terms:
- For cattle that are older than 30 months, every part except seven types of Specified Risk Materials (SRM) are to be imported. Intestines are not included in the seven types.
- For cattle that are younger than 30 months, every part except two types of SRM are to be imported. The two parts are tonsils and one of the stomachs. Note that bones of cattle younger than 30 months are to be imported.
- U.S. is generally required to follow the regulations of OIE (for “Office International des Epizooties” – an office under World Trade Organization that deals with animal health. Don’t you just love the French’s attempt at relevance?). OIE classify countries with BSE risk into three tiers (from low to high): Negligible Risk, Controlled Risk, and Undetermined Risk. Currently U.S. in the Controlled Risk category. Importantly, even if U.S. gets another reported case of BSE, Korea can only stop import only if U.S. moves from Controlled Risk to Undetermined Risk.
If one knows all the numbers behind BSE, these terms are not entirely terrible. So far, only known cases of BSE occurred with cattle that were older than 30 months. Less than 1 percent of cattle slaughtered in the U.S. is older than 30 months, and 97 percent is younger than 20 months. Among the cattle older than 30 months, there is about 1 in a million chance that it has BSE. Then the infected SRM has to mix in with non-SRM parts, and then has to be eaten. After all this, the estimated chance of infection through these rules is about one in one billion.
On top of that, consider the fact that in the 20 years since the discovery of BSE, roughly 200 people worldwide died from variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD), i.e. the human variant of BSE. (Note 6/3/08: Thank you Jenny B. for the correction to vCJD from foot-and-mouth.) That’s 10 people per year. Shark attack worldwide kills 15 people a year. Now for the probability, compare the number of people who swim near sharks multiplied by the number of times of actual swims, and the number of people who eat beef, multiplied by the number of times of actual consumption!
Even further on top of that, there were only three reported cases of vCJD in the U.S., and as it turns out, all three of them immigrated to the U.S. only several years before being diagnosed with the disease. (Two from Britain, one from Saudi Arabia.) In other words, given that latency of vCJD is over 10 years, it is not American beef that killed them.
But anyone with half a brain can figure out that those terms definitely look bad. Common people know Mad Cow Disease as some deadly disease that spreads through eating soft tissue. So imagine how a regular Korean person, who unlike the Korean is too busy to go through various channels of information, would receive the news: “Wait, so we are importing all those soft tissues? And even if Mad Cow Disease actually happens in America, we can’t stop the importation?”
Legitimate Concerns about American Meat and Korean People
There are some legitimate concerns surrounding American regulations, Korean people’s eating habits, and Korean people’s physiology.
First, U.S. was relatively late addressing cross-infection concerns. One of the ways in which BSE spreads is by mixing in infected SRM into cattle feed. (This disgusting and cannibalistic practice began in Britain, where grain price was too steep to create cattle feed that is 100 percent grain. This is why 80 percent of vCJD occurred in Britain.)
U.S. never really had that practice, but prohibited it anyway once that practice became a problem. However, mixing in SRM for feed for non-ruminating animals (like chickens) was still allowed. Then, theoretically, if a chicken eats BSE-infected SRM, and later parts from that chicken are mixed into cattle feed, the cattle may become infected – i.e. a cross-infection. FDA finally decided to prohibit mixing in SRM from cattle older than 30 months in any animal feed, but the prohibition does not come into effect until April 2009. This is definitely late compared to Europe.
Also, unlike Europe, U.S. only requires sample testing of BSE instead of testing every head of cattle. The sample consists of cows that cannot stand or otherwise failed a physical test. Therefore, it ends up being that only .1 percent of 100 million cows in the U.S. are tested. This is mostly because testing every head of cattle is too expensive in America, where there are many more cows than Europe.
Another legitimate concern is that U.S. is lax in tracking the age of the cow. The 30-month mark is obviously critical. The most accurate method of tracking age is to tag every single head of cattle, but that only happens with 20 percent of the cattle in the U.S. The rest are checked based on teeth and muscle conditions; this method is reasonably accurate, but certainly less accurate than tagging.
On the other side, Korean people’s eating habits are unique in that they consume a lot of soft tissue. Bone soup (featured in the Korean’s article here) is a very popular Korean dish, and Korean barbecue invariably features ribs with bones. Korean people also often eat tripe (= stomach) and small intestines.
Lastly, there was an interesting study that suggested Asians are possibly more susceptible to vCJD. For vast majority of vCJD patients so far, at their 129th genome, Methione/Metionine identicality has been observed. Among Caucasians, the M/M identicality occurs at around 35~40 percent, but among Asians it occurs over 90 percent.
This result is intriguing, but consider this: Caucasian Parkinson’s Disease patients tend to have more H1 haploid compared to H2 haploid in their MAPT genome – the ratio is normally around 8:2, and white Parkinson’s patients have a higher ratio of H1. But for Asians, the ratio is more like 9.9:0.1. So does Asian people get Parkinson’s more often? The answer is no – Parkinson’s disease occurs at the same rate across all races. In other words, it is a stretch to find susceptibility to disease based on a single genome, and while the study above is interesting, it is inconclusive.
Nonetheless, the concern was at least worth looking into, especially given that racist Korean people would eat up the notion that their physiology is somehow different and special. (Described in the Korean’s post here.)
Ridiculously Outrageous False Rumors
But as these things are, crazy false rumors swirled around Korea as opposition to beef import began to form.
Some of them were variants of an existing fact. For example, it is true that SRM from cattle older than 30 months can no longer be used in animal feed in the U.S., as written above. That fact morphed into a rumor that all beef from cattle older than 30 months is unfit for animal feed. Then the predictable reaction from Koreans is: “Americans want us to eat meat that they won’t even feed to their dogs?”
Also, it is true that U.S. imports Australian and Canadian beef, mostly to be used at fast food chains because they are cheaper. That fact turned into a rumor that even Americans won’t eat their own beef and only eat Australian or Canadian beef, and now they are pushing their infected meat to be sold abroad.
It is true that BSE cannot be eliminated by cooking the infected part, because BSE is not caused by bacteria or virus, but a mutated strain of protein. That fact changed into a paranoid whisper that BSE virus is this invincible thing that cannot be destroyed no matter what.
But some rumors are absolutely crazy, like:
- Using any of the 600 products that use cow’s gelatin or collagen, such as cosmetics, maxi pads, diapers, etc., will give you BSE. (Gelatin or collagen is not SRM.)
- BSE is carried through knife or cutting board that touched infected meat. If you wash those things in water, BSE virus will survive in the water through treatment and will eventually infect the drinking water. (Too much Outbreak/28 Days Later. BSE is not caused by virus – one has to eat the infected SRM to catch BSE.)
- There are 5 million Alzheimer’s patient in the U.S., and roughly 250,000~650,000 among them are suspected cases of BSE. (The symptoms of Alzheimer’s and BSE are completely different, and BSE kills within one or two years of diagnosis – anyone notice all demented people dying within two years?)
- Kissing will transmit BSE. (Maybe in Korean dramas.)
Incredibly Stupid Responses by Korean Government
Chris Matthews, in his book Hardball (that’s right, it was a book before there was a TV show,) said after every election, the winning politician must carefully assess whether s/he won, or the other side lost. Did you win because your platform was strong, or did you win because the other side was so terrible? Although grammatically the same, they are two wildly different things in politics.
This question is important because it determines the true amount of political capital you amassed from your victory. Obviously it is smooth sailing if you won through your strength; you can go ahead and implement your policies, and the people will be behind you. However, if you won through the other’s weakness, you must proceed with extreme caution, because your support will disappear in an instant at one misstep.
Apparently, the Lee administration did not bother to ask themselves this most basic question. It was drunk on the landslide victory and did not realize that the victory came mostly from the epic disaster that was Roh presidency, and not as much from Lee’s own track record and policy proposals.
Even before the Mad Cow row, signs of Lee administration’s just “not getting it” were plenty. Even though Lee touted his own resume as a CEO of Hyundai during the election, the economy was no better than before. (Which is in fact natural – despite many promises, there is little that a president can do to revive the economy.) Food price and gas price went up to new heights (as did everywhere else in the world).
But the administration did not fully commit itself to economy; instead it was detracted by self-created distractions. Its selection of cabinet was marred by the (mostly true) allegation that it is stuffed with wealthy cronies of Lee or complete amateurs from universities. In the National Assembly elections held a few months after the presidential election, Lee’s Grand National Party went through a civil war over who would run for the elections, with Lee’s proxies and Park Geun-Hye, the presidential candidate who lost the primary, duking it out. Public confidence in the new presidency fell quickly.
The fact that the beef import negotiation was done so poorly, at a time when Lee administration was hanging on a balance, indicates that Lee administration did not even have the wherewithal to assess the situation they were in. Any Korean with half a brain should have known that beef importation is a sensitive issue. In fact, it has all the indications of a “trouble” issue. It has a small, vocal group of opposition (= cattle farmers) who would begin stoking the fire; it plays right into the general public’s concerns about health and excessive American influence; finally, it deals with fatal disease that is not yet fully understood (and it affects the brain!), which would easily produce sensationalistic headlines.
However, what is more astounding than the poorly negotiated beef market opening is the administration’s even poorer management of public opinion. Even as things were spiraling out of control, the administration never grasped why and how things were spiraling out of control.
The “why” part is what we discussed so far – Korean people was running out of patience with the administration. But the initial reaction by the administration showed no sign that it understood what its people were thinking. President Lee himself offered a pithy comment: “Inner city laborers will be able to eat quality beef for cheap; people with health concerns simply don’t have to eat.” The natural reaction is: So you mean inner city laborers can go ahead and die from Mad Cow Disease? And what if I catch BSE from my lipstick?
Chief negotiator for Korea held a press conference to explain, but only made it worse by saying “It is like being able to eat blowfish after the poison is removed.” First, blowfish is a relatively expensive food, and definitely not something one would eat every day, or even every month. Furthermore, those who cook blowfish in Korea must have a license, and blowfish is rarely processed outside of the restaurant’s kitchen, and never in a large factory through a machine. All in all, it seems as if the negotiator did not spend more than five minutes thinking up that analogy, which appeared consistent with the way he handled the negotiation.
Equally important – and equally ignorant, on the administration’s part – was “how” things managed to spiral out of control. The administration did not seem to realize that South Korea, as one of the world leaders in information technology, has a completely new way of forming public opinions that did not exist 10 years ago when they were last in power.
The Korean public has the closest thing to virtual democracy in the world. They are instantly informed through the Internet (putting aside the issue of whether they are informed with anything more than sensationalistic crap,) and organization comes extremely quickly. The word spreads instantaneously through the vast network of text and instant messaging, and the meeting place is always the same: the City Hall Plaza. A gathering that features tens of thousand people does not take more than a week to organize, and that might be too conservative of an estimate.
Controlling this new world order takes a level of mastery with which this administration is simply not equipped. In this circumstance, like a good basketball drive, the first step matters the most; it is exceedingly difficult to fix the situation when the first step was so egregiously bad. Lee administration did try some methods to fix things online – however, this new, Internet-savvy voting public would have none of the crude methods with which the government tried in order to control information. In fact, it reminds of ill-fated attempts of confused parents trying to connect with their teenage children by talking “cool”.
(One of the ways the Korean saw was a large, flashing pop-up ads on online newspapers that screamed “AMERICAN BEEF, EATEN BY 400 MILLION AMERICANS AND 2.5 MILLION KOREAN AMERICANS, IS COMPLETELY SAFE!!!! YOUR GOVERNMENT WILL TAKE RESPONSIBILITY FOR YOUR HEALTH!!!!” You can't make this stuff up.)
Despite all of his faults as the president, Roh was fantastic in using this new form of public opinion to his advantage – it propelled him all the way to the presidency, and once there, saved him from impeachment. Approached without caution, this force could just as easily undo a presidency, as Lee administration is facing right now.
The Korean is literal in saying “undoing a presidency.” Currently 1.35 million people signed on the online petition calling for President Lee’s impeachment. Although the actual impeachment may be a pipe dream, one prominent conservative newspaper (Dong-A Ilbo) went so far as to call for the resignation of the entire cabinet, and it does seem likely that it will happen.
-EDIT 6/3/08: The Korean had the following paragraph in the draft, and realized it disappeared somehow. Here it is-
And truly, this is the reason why protests continue night after night. It is not because Koreans are dumb enough to really believe those ridiculously crazy rumors about American beef. Koreans want to send a signal to their government that did not understand what they were concerned about. Koreans wanted a government that cared about their health; a government that would hold its own in a negotiation with America; a government that would respect their opinion and attempt to persuade them sincerely, instead of talking down as if they are too stupid to understand. The way Lee administration handled the beef negotiation and the aftermath was the clear sign that this government was badly out of touch. In response, Korean people are taking to the streets every night, trying to slap some sense into it.
What is Happening as of Today
Today, the Korean government decided to delay the official announcement of the opening of beef market. This move de facto signifies that the Korean government will be engaging in some form of renegotiation. The news so far says the government is considering implementing its own quarantine over American beef such that meat from cattle older than 30 months will have a clear designation such that it will not be sold. Also, President Lee is expected to announce major change in his cabinet within a week.
Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at email@example.com
-EDIT 6/2/2008- Moments ago the Minister of Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries announced that it will ask the U.S. to stop the export of beef from cattle older than 30 months, which is essentially a renegotiation.