Bowing to Protests, S. Korea Imposes New Conditions on US Beef Imports
South Korea is seeking to ease some domestic irritation, with a move that could complicate American-Korean trade relations. Seoul is amending its promise to resume U.S. beef imports by imposing new trade conditions aimed at placating political critics of the South Korean president.
In what he described as a "humble acceptance of the people's will," South Korean Agriculture Minister Chung Woon-chun announced a new set of limitations on plans to import U.S. beef.
He says South Korea has requested the American government stop exporting cattle aged 30 months or older, about which South Korean consumers have expressed the most anxiety. He says his ministry will postpone scheduled quarantine inspections of American beef until the United States responds to the request.
The move is a reaction to street protests which began weeks ago, opposing American beef imports. The demonstrations have evolved into much broader, grassroots criticism of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak's leadership style.
Two months after his February inauguration, Mr. Lee arranged a deal to fully resume imports of virtually all cuts of U.S. beef. The imports were banned in 2003, after an American animal was found to have the fatal brain condition known as "mad cow disease." It is theoretically possible for humans to contract a version of the disease by eating tainted meat.
Mr. Lee's import resumption deal, clinched during an April summit with President Bush, fulfilled a promise made more than a year earlier by Mr. Lee's predecessor. It also followed a ruling by a United Nations organization, backing Washington's assertion that U.S. beef is safe.
Nonetheless, many South Koreans saw President Lee's decision to resume the imports as too sudden, too wide-ranging - and too dismissive of public sentiment.
Protests that began as quiet candlelight vigils, last month, have gradually grown louder and more violent. Tens of thousands of protesters have gathered almost nightly in downtown Seoul, blocking major traffic arteries and leading to hundreds of arrests.
Although protesters are unable to cite a single confirmed case of a human contracting brain disease from consuming U.S. beef, their gatherings have served as a magnet for groups with a host of grievances against the South Korean president.
American officials have repeatedly refused to re-negotiate U.S. beef imports and are unlikely to agree to Seoul's new beef import conditions. Analysts warn the escalating beef dispute could endanger ratification of the major trade deal the two countries, signed last year.