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Seoul's 'Beef' Not About Beef

Interviewee: Don Oberdorfer, Chairman of the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University's Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
July 1, 2008

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Don Oberdorfer, chairman of the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies, says the street protests ostensibly against the import of U.S. beef represent more of a political protest against the new conservative government in Seoul than any concern about food safety. Oberdorfer says most Koreans oppose the protests and that they appear to be abating.

We've been reading in the U.S. press almost every day about big street demonstrations by thousands of South Koreans protesting the import of U.S. beef for safety reasons. Recently, the United States modified the trade agreement saying that only beef younger than thirty months would be exported. Koreans eat a lot of beef— but are they really that worried about the safety of American beef?

I don't think you can make a generalized statement about what all Koreans believe or are worried about. But, in my view, there are a lot of other elements here in addition to beef. In some ways beef is the least of it. Really, a lot of it has to do with Korean nationalism, with protests between various groups in Korea. There were these huge candlelight protests with literally hundreds of thousands and even millions of people out in the streets at one time. These had to do with the fact that after ten years of progressive governments, the Koreans have elected a conservative as their president. A lot of this has to do with the current politicsopposition to the conservatives on the part of many of the progressive groups.

Is progressive another word for liberal or left wing?

Liberal. I wouldn't call them left wing. If you were a European, you'd call them a kind of moderate socialist or something like that. The politics has a lot to do with it. According to the recent polling data, close to 60 percent of those who had an opinion want these protests to stop. Korea doesn't like to be ignored. And what's happened in Korea—quite without most Americans realizing it—is that it has become a prosperous and a very democratic country. The fact that it is so democratic and that people can raise their voices makes it possible to have not only street protests but to have all kinds of journalistic liberal opposition to government policy, especially now that you have the first conservative government in power after ten years of progressive, or liberal governments.

Last fall a new president, Lee Myung-bak, a former business leader, was elected. Normally in a democratic country, if you have opposition you do it through the parliament. Of course in the United States we had huge protests against the Vietnam War back in the 1970s. Is this similar to that? Is it that heated? Or is this strictly a way of shifting opposition to the streets for a while?

I don't think that it's either one of those actually. I don't think it's a determined decision to shift the opposition to the streets. There is a lot of popular opposition because in this case, because it is beef, because it is something you eat, because of a variety of factors, this has been the easy target for opposition groups.

[A]fter ten years of progressive governments, the Koreans have elected a conservative as their president. A lot of this has to do with … opposition to the conservatives on the part of many of the progressive groups.

The government didn't handle it terribly well either. So they had these very widespread protests. But they weren't very deep. I don't think that the people who were protesting were really that terribly upset about beef. They were out there in part because they wanted to show their opposition to what this more conservative government was doing.

I see that today the police raided the offices of two of the groups that were accused of leading the protests. One of them is the Korea Solidarity for Progressive Movement. I guess they're trying to crack down now on these movements.

The authorities are trying to in several ways, one of them is this raid on several civic groups and they searched some offices of two of these groups and confiscated some computers and some other stuff.  But it doesn't have the feel of a national crisis. There are demonstrations—people want to display their opinions and want to be heard, but the polls show that most Koreans have had enough of it and they're ready for it to stop.

I guess the Korean press has probably covered this story, and has reported that there is no foot and mouth disease in the United Sates?

The Korean press is a free press and it's a very good press. They sometimes get themselves out on some big tangent but I don't think they've made a cause of this particular issue.

Talk about the pending U.S.-South Korea Free Trade Agreement.

The FTA, the Free Trade Agreement, has been signed but it's not been passed. It’s not been brought to the Congress for approval and it's clearly not going to happen during the rest of this year because there isn't enough time left on the legislative calendar. But the assumption is that the government is going to go back to it next year and it hopes to get it passed. There's a better chance of passing it in Korea than there is in the United States because of the U.S. opposition to trade agreements in general.

Has Barack Obama said anything about this South Korea deal?

He's said something, but it hasn't been much.

Wasn’t there an expectation that once the Koreans allowed U.S. beef into their country, Congress would take the FTA up?

That was the theory that was sold to the Koreans, that if they agreed to allow American beef in that would automatically get the trade agreement approved. But that did not turn out to be the case and it does not appear that that will be the case.

When President Lee was elected there was an assumption here that we'd have a much better relationship between the United States and South Korea because he's more supportive of the United States in foreign affairs. Has that turned out to be the case?

There are big problems in the relationship. It's not been due to any actions that he's taken, but the same things that we've been talking about—the problems of the free trade agreement and some other kinds of issues between the two governments. I think it will turn out to be the case that President Lee will be on very good friendly terms with the U.S. administration.

Now that North Korea has turned over this nuclear document and blown up the Yongbyon reactor tower, I guess we're still going to have to wait until next year to get on with the enforcement mechanisms, right?

Probably. It's really a little hard to say. They have started to make some gestures about the information that they have to provide about their providing nuclear materials to other countries and other things of interest, enriched uranium as well. What is notable is this blowing up of their reactor tower.  This was obviously a public demonstration of their willingness and eagerness to proceed with the United States on the taking down of any suspicions about their willingness to provide nuclear materials to other countries. It was a rather striking demonstration of their eagerness to show themselves as cooperating with the United States.

What is the policy of the new South Korean government on relations between the South and the North?

The policy has been to keep things pretty much as they are. They want to cooperate with North Korea; they don't want to have any conflict with North Korea. It's the North that has to figure out how much they want to work with this new conservative government in the South. So far they haven't taken any measures that suggest that they're souring on cooperation between North and South. I don't think they are. It's certainly to the North's advantage; they need all the aid they can possibly get from the South and others. It's really a dire situation.

Is the South continuing to support them in food aid and that sort of thing?

The South Koreans have offered large amounts of food aid in this time of famine in North Korea, but the North Koreans have so far not accepted the offers. In contrast, 37,000 tons of American wheat has arrived in a ship just today. They need the aid and there's a variety of countries that are willing to supply it, including South Korea, which doesn't want to see any instability in the North. These are their own people also. They want to do what they can within the limits previously set out to aid the people of North Korea.

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