In S. Korea, a Reversal on U.S. Beef Imports

Protesters gather at Seoul City Hall for a candlelight vigil against the import of American beef, which many fear will bring mad cow disease despite evidence to the contrary.
Protesters gather at Seoul City Hall for a candlelight vigil against the import of American beef, which many fear will bring mad cow disease despite evidence to the contrary. (By Ahn Young-joon -- Associated Press)

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By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, June 4, 2008

SEOUL, June 3 -- With his approval ratings hit hard by mass anxiety about American beef, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak backed away Tuesday from a wildly unpopular agreement to resume U.S. beef imports. He had personally approved the deal less than two months ago.

Lee's change of heart follows weeks of demonstrations by tens of thousands of South Koreans, many of them mothers with children in hand, angered that his government would expose them to the purported risks of mad cow disease.

"We have lost the public's confidence over this matter," Lee told his cabinet Tuesday, according to a spokesman.

Plunging poll numbers apparently also played a role in Lee's decision. In office just 100 days, he has seen his approval ratings sink below 20 percent, a historic low so early in a South Korean president's term.

His government asked the United States on Tuesday to refrain from shipping beef from animals that were more than 30 months old at the time of slaughter, which many people here believe raises the risk of mad cow infection.

Until the U.S. government complies, it appears that all beef imports will remain on hold.

"It is natural not to bring in meat from cattle 30 months of age and older as long as the people do not want it," said Lee, although he had agreed April 18 to allow U.S. beef imports regardless of age.

U.S. reaction was swift and negative.

"I can't deny that we're disappointed by this," said U.S. Ambassador Alexander Vershbow. "We think that the agreement that our two governments reached in April is a good agreement, that it's based on international science, and there's no scientific justification to postpone implementation."

Vershbow added that the United States did not "see any need for renegotiation of the agreement" because it provides "very effective safeguards to ensure the health of Korean consumers." He also said that U.S. beef over 30 months old has been confirmed safe in many scientific tests.

Several leading U.S. beef companies said Monday that they would voluntarily begin labeling shipments to South Korea to indicate the age of cattle at the time of slaughter. But it appeared that this would not be enough to satisfy the Seoul government.

The ban that has substantially closed South Korea's market to American beef producers began after the first case of mad cow was confirmed in Washington state in 2003. Before then, South Korea was the third-largest importer of U.S. beef.


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