TOPICS > Politics

Protests Against Government, U.S. Imports Sweep South Korea

June 11, 2008 at 6:10 PM EDT
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More than 100,000 demonstrators took to the streets of Seoul to protest a proposed deal allowing U.S. beef imports and taking to task the teetering government of President Lee Myung-bak. A regional expert explores the core issues behind the protests.

GWEN IFILL: Six weeks of protests turned into a massive candlelight demonstration this week, as citizens angry at their government spilled onto the streets of Seoul, South Korea.

At the heart of the expanding rallies is discontent about food safety, trade, and the management style of new President Lee Myung-bak.

BAKE KI-WAN, Protest Leader (through translator): Lee Myung-bak is finished. We should topple him with the force of democracy unless he voluntarily resigns.

GWEN IFILL: Some South Koreans are upset over a deal to resume imports of beef from the U.S., which had been banned after incidents of mad cow disease were reported in 2003.

LEE JOO-YEON, South Korean Citizen (through translator): I came here not only because of the mad cow disease issue of U.S. beef imports, but also because of all the policies the Lee Myung-bak administration is pushing without the people’s consent.

GWEN IFILL: Lee, who took office only four months ago, agreed to lift the ban in April, just before meeting with President Bush on trade matters in Washington.

His decision sparked the biggest anti-government protests in Korea in 20 years. Yesterday, the entire cabinet offered to resign. Lee has not accepted the resignations, but has promised a new beginning.

Before he was elected, Lee was nicknamed “The Bulldozer” for the way he operated as a businessman. After taking office, he promised economic growth and strengthened relations with the U.S., but recent polls show his popularity has since plummeted.

JOO HA-NA, South Korean Citizen (through translator): The president is not aware of the power of the people. We’re desperate to let him know our mind, and I’ve shaved my head to let him know that not only the U.S. beef imports deal was not the right thing to do, but also all of the policies that are anti-common people.

GWEN IFILL: Lee has not indicated whether he will re-impose the ban on U.S. beef, but food safety officials in South Korea and the U.S. have said the meat is safe. South Korea was the third-largest buyer of American beef.

Beef serving as a 'trigger'

GWEN IFILL: For more on South Korea's political turmoil, we turn to someone who has followed events there very closely. Victor Cha served as director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council from December 2004 until 2007. He is now a professor of government at Georgetown University.

Professor Cha, welcome.

VICTOR CHA, Director of Asian Studies, Georgetown University: Thank you.

GWEN IFILL: So is this really about diseased beef, or is there something else going on here?

VICTOR CHA: Well, I think initially it is about concerns that the Korean public has about American beef. Those concerns, in my opinion, are not well-placed. U.S. beef is actually safe by international scientific standards.

But there, I think, is a larger issue here, which is what appears to be the general public's concern about this new government in South Korea, the first conservative government in over a decade, and whether it's pursuing a style of government that is considered high-handed.

GWEN IFILL: Well, when you say "something larger," is it really something larger or is it something smaller, that is to say, internal politics?

VICTOR CHA: Well, that's a good point. I think, in many ways, it is about international politics and domestic politics. I mean, you have a situation in which a conservative president, for the first time in over 10 years, won by the largest majority since Korea became a democracy last December.

He also won very -- the conservatives won well in a National Assembly election only two months later. So you have someone who's pretty well-ensconced in power in a rightward shift of Korean politics, and the left and the liberals are really trying to stand up using participatory democracy to try to make their point, and the beef issue.

GWEN IFILL: Is it fair to say the beef issue, whether the beef is safe or not is actually the trigger for this other discontent?

VICTOR CHA: I think so. I think it's certainly been the trigger in the sense that President Lee, when he took office, inherited this issue. There was a ban on U.S. beef that went back to the prior government in South Korea. And that prior government had also committed to open the market in a slow stage process.

President Lee, when he took office, his first overseas trip was to the United States to meet President Bush, and he made a rather quick decision to open the beef market and, according to people in Seoul, without proper consultation with all the parties that needed to be consulted.

Korean politics uniquely volatile

GWEN IFILL: Tens of thousands of people in the streets in Seoul and other cities in the last few days. What do we know about who these protestors are? And what does that tell us about what the root of the problems are?

VICTOR CHA: Well, I think what we see is a manifestation of the fact that Korea really has become a very vibrant democracy. Up until 1987, this was a country that was run by military dictatorships, one of the most authoritarian systems in Asia.

And now it has flowered into a full-fledged democracy, as well as a society that's the most well-connected, in terms of Internet access and cell phone access in the world.

And you have groups within South Korea, particularly the younger generation, slightly left-of-center, that have taken hold of this technology and use participatory democracy to really give themselves a political voice.

GWEN IFILL: But even participatory democracy, even at its shakiest, usually gives -- the honeymoon lasts a little longer than four months. What is it about the way that President Lee has managed or governed which has made him so unpopular so fast?

VICTOR CHA: Yes, yes, I mean, it's a very good question. I think one answer is that the history, political history of South Korea, is that the South Korean presidents and politicians do rise and fall very quickly. It's a much more exaggerated trend line than you might see in other Western democracies.

The second, I think, point is that it was, in many ways, the perfect storm. You had a president that was coming in, you know, a shift to the right after a decade of more left-of-center politics, lots of concerns about in which direction the government would go, and then a president who's talked about improving the relationship with the United States, came to Camp David to see President Bush, but then made this very important decision on beef prior to that.

Lee seeks growth through free trade

GWEN IFILL: Was that -- he had never been a politician before he got this office. He'd been a businessman.

VICTOR CHA: He had been a businessman, and it's a real rags-to-riches story. He grew up in a shack and worked hard and became a very successful businessman, and then became mayor of Seoul, the capital city now in which these demonstrations take place, and was a very popular mayor of Seoul, did some things, in terms of quality of life, greening of the city, that were very popular.

And that was one of the reasons why he was so successful, in terms of his election. But this one particular issue with regard to beef has become the trigger to raise questions about whether he and his team can govern effectively.

GWEN IFILL: Well, speaking of his team, we heard many members of his cabinet offered their resignations. There are reports today that perhaps he might be able to replace his prime minister. Do we know, is it likely that there are mass resignations in the offing?

VICTOR CHA: I think that, probably from their perspective, they're trying to figure out a way to turn the tide, in terms of how this one particular issue has escalated into a complete loss of public confidence in the government.

I mean, in defense of the government, we -- you know, we should note that President Lee was making a decision about opening up the beef market, which was a decision that the prior government had also committed to do.

And it was also seen as a very important interim step to get a free trade agreement between the United States and Korea approved, both in the National Assembly in Korea and in the Congress here in Washington.

So he was trying to do a very difficult balancing act of trying to do things that were good for the country, good for the Korean consumer, and good for the overall economic growth of the country, but he happened to trip over this one particular issue, and public perceptions that he had not handled it well.

GWEN IFILL: How much of the friction exists, is driven by who has the upper hand on trade between the United States and Korea, and suspicions that the United States is throwing its muscle around?

VICTOR CHA: I think, I mean, the United States faces those sorts of suspicions around the world in general, given the size of the country here.

I think, in this particular issue, I mean, clearly, the U.S. Congress here had made very clear that this one particular issue of beef, which had been a nagging issue for over three years now, was something that had to be resolved by the South Korean side before they could move forward to discuss ratification of the free trade agreement.

I think, from the South Korean side, again, the Lee Myung-bak government, its biggest issue was growing the economy beyond the 4 percent growth rates that they're having now. This free trade agreement would have been good -- is good for the growth of the country and growth of the economy.

So I think they were trying to resolve an issue from a previous government, as well as try to make the steps necessary to get this free trade agreement passed so that they could grow the economy.

'Perfect storm' engulfs government

GWEN IFILL: You spoke a few minutes ago about the perfect storm. I read somewhere today that among the protesters were teachers, for instance, who didn't like his education reforms and that everyone who has a complaint now against the government is taking it out in the streets.

VICTOR CHA: That's right. I think you've really gotten a sort of snowball effect that has been created because of this one particular issue.

But, again, I mean, the thing that's so fascinating about all this is, as you mentioned, he was elected by the largest margin of victory of any South Korean president since South Korea democratized in 1987. And his platform was one that the majority of the Korean people were in support of.

You have this one particular issue that tripped him up that has led to a great deal of protests about not only beef, but this whole question of whether he governs in a way that's high-handed.

But these were not real problems when he was mayor of Seoul and quite popular.

GWEN IFILL: The U.S. Congress has imposed what they call a strategic pause on free trade agreements. Is this something which is likely to have any effect at all on the dispute as it's playing out now in South Korea, or is this a completely unrelated issue?

VICTOR CHA: I think it does have a very important impact. You know, I think the Lee government believed, prior to coming to the United States, that if they could resolve this beef issue, that they would be able to get progress in both legislatures in both countries on ratifying this free trade agreement.

This strategic pause now looks as though for Lee, he's taken this big step on beef, taken a big hit in his own country, and now it doesn't look like the free trade agreement with the United States will get approved in our Congress, you know, pending this strategic pause.

GWEN IFILL: So he looks weak?

VICTOR CHA: So he looks weak. And as you said, it's a perfect storm.

GWEN IFILL: Is there anything for the U.S. to do? Or does the U.S. need to stay out of it at this point?

VICTOR CHA: I mean, this is really a domestic political issue for the Lee government. It needs to get its house in order.

And I think it's got -- you know, it's got a good vision for the country. For the United States, I think it's not our place to be involved in this. And we still need to continue to press for ratification of the free trade agreement and export U.S. beef, which is safe.

GWEN IFILL: Professor Vincent Cha, thank you very much for helping us out.

VICTOR CHA: Sure. My pleasure.