Monday, June 16, 2008

Korea's Beef Beef

A big story out of South Korea lately (not many stories from there reach the US front pages, unless it's a massive corporate takeover--looks like LG is not likely to bid on the GE appliance unit) is the massive protests in Seoul over President Lee's decision to lift the ban on US beef imports. When something like a half-million people gather in front of the President's House, you have to wonder if it's really about the meat.

Well, yes and no, from what I've read. The original issue was exactly about beef, going back to September of last year, when Korea agreed to allow meat only (no bones or soft tissue) from cattle under 30 months--younger cows are thought to be much less likely to have BSE. It so happened that when the first shipments were inspected, plenty of bone got accidentally packed up, including in one case an entire spine.

Protests began to take on the theme that South Korea was behaving like a colony of the United States--this despite the fact that Lee's government was popularly chosen in elections four months ago, largely on a pro-America platform. Beef imports (Korea was America's third largest export destination before BSE) are a key sticking point in the US-ROK free trade agreement.

Last weekend was also the sixth anniversary of a tragic accident in which two Korean schoolgirls were killed by a US convoy from Camp Red Cloud, in Ouijongbu. Ouijongbu is 19 km northeast of Seoul, and today is part of the metropolitan area, but during the Korean War, it was the closest town to M*A*S*H 4077th.

So the protests have grown to encompass Koreans' weariness with the US military presence--American troops have been stationed in the South continuously for about sixty years. It isn't a referendum on America, per se, I think; frankly, our image in Korea is probably not as bad as it is at home, where Americans disagree with the direction the country is going by a whopping 75%. Indeed, the Korean protests have a general frustration element to them as well, as numbers have been swelled by truckers and transportation workers fed up with rising fuel prices. Of course, the cars they ship off to China probably have something to do with that.

But, back to the beef, a WaPo house editorial on Fri, June 13 points out, "South Korea can afford exquisite sensitivity to remote health risks. In that sense, the booming, democratic South has earned the right to panic once in a while, just like Americans do."

After all, right here at home I get pretty much nothing but American beef, and I don't panic in the slightest--though I do have other Pavlovian responses as my American steak sizzles on the grill. OTOH, news story after news story has shown (from spinach to beef stew to 150 million pounds of ground meat from one packinghouse to tomatoes--tomatoes?!?1!) that the current administration's death grip on government regulation and inspection has dramatically reduced the fed's effectiveness simply by decreasing boots on the ground, or inspectors in the abattoir. As Alfred E. Neuman said, "What, me worry?"

Tonight, for dinner? No beef, quail. Grilled, very lightly seasoned with garlic and ground pepper. From South Carolina.

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