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Seoul's Beef

Author: Jayshree Bajoria
June 17, 2008


Anti-government protests (Bloomberg) in South Korea have put President Lee Myung-bak's conservative government in jeopardy just six months after he came to power. The protests were sparked by Lee's efforts to lift a ban on U.S. beef imports, but soon metastasized into a much broader assault on the government's core policies. Lee won December 2007 elections promising to take a tough line on Pyongyang, reform South Korea's economy, and improve ties with the United States. His opponents now take issue with Lee's leadership on all three counts.

Soon after he took office in February, Lee voted for a UN resolution condemning human rights situation in North Korea. He also made economic aid, which the South has lavished on Pyongyang for the past decade, contingent on the denuclearization progress of the North. This prompted angry reactions from Pyongyang. Despite warnings of a looming food crisis in the North, Seoul did not send its annual 400,000 tons of rice aid to Pyongyang. Now Lee's government, under pressure from various quarters, has offered 50,000 tons of corn (VOA), but Pyongyang has yet to respond. An editorial in the South Korean newspaper Hankyoreh argues that because of deteriorating inter-Korean relations, Seoul has lost leverage in the on-going Six-Party Talks over Pyongyang's denuclearizaton. "If and when the situation evolves to the next stage," the article says, "South Korea could be excluded from key policy decisions related to the Korean peninsula, including a peace regime for the peninsula and Northeast Asia."

Experts say concerns about Lee focus as much on his governing style as his policies. Leonardo Martinez-Diaz, a fellow at Brookings, writes: "Lee has behaved too much like a chairman of the board, acting imperiously and with little regard for public opinion." The Financial Times agrees that Lee lacks political tact in the implementation of his policies.

Seoul's protests stir unease in the West, particularly given their nationalistic tone. As this Backgrounder notes, relations between Seoul and Washington have suffered in the past due to their differences over North Korea, and the large U.S. military presence in South Korea remains a sensitive issue. "While championing a pragmatic leadership, Mr. Lee overlooked Koreans' nationalistic pride," says Choi Jin, director of the Institute of Presidential Leadership in Seoul, in an interview with the New York Times. While former President Roh Moo-hyun was seen as an anti-American and overtly nationalistic, Jin says Lee's problem is just the opposite.

Lee's decision to open up South Korea to beef imports from the United States right before his visit to Washington in April was seen as an effort to win points from the U.S. Congress, which is holding up the free trade accord the two countries signed last year. But congressional concerns on trade are not Korea-specific. Congress has also dragged its feet in addressing free trade agreements with Peru and Colombia. Presumptive Democratic nominee Barack Obama has criticized the South Korea deal, calling it "bad for American workers." Presumptive Republican nominee John McCain, on the other hand, supports the South Korea deal, which he says will help maintain strategic partnership between the two countries. The debate in South Korea is not much different. Brookings' Martinez-Diaz writes it is a "clash of different visions over Korea’s place in a changing world economy," with trade-offs for agriculture and industry.

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