By Stella Kim and Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, June 20, 2008
SEOUL, June 19 -- South Korean President Lee Myung-bak apologized again Thursday for failing to grasp the militant mad cow fears of his people and promised them that any U.S. beef sold here would only be from younger cattle deemed to be less at risk of the disease.
The popular fears have in the past six weeks undermined Lee's leadership, paralyzed his government and triggered huge and sometimes violent street protests, while giving rise to a broader discontent that in the past week has spawned a crippling strike by truckers.
"I and my government should have looked at what the people want regarding food safety more carefully," Lee said. "But we failed to do so and now seriously reflect on the failure."
In a nationally televised news conference, Lee shared what he called a "repenting moment." It occurred last week as he watched from his residence as more than 80,000 people gathered in central Seoul for the largest of the beef protests.
"I reproached myself again and again late into the night watching the candlelight vigil," he said.
Protesters have demanded that Lee, who has been in office less than four months, renegotiate a beef deal made in April with the United States as part of a larger free-trade agreement between the two countries. They want a new agreement to stipulate that beef from cattle older than 30 months cannot be imported. Cattle younger than that are regarded as less likely to carry mad cow disease.
Lee said Thursday he could not renegotiate the deal because that might cause serious problems for the Korean economy. Instead, his government is pursing talks this week in Washington to modify regulations that specify the age of beef for import.
Since Lee's government said last week it would try to amend the terms of the import deal, street protests in Seoul have declined markedly. On Wednesday evening, only about 800 people turned out.
Over the past six weeks, though, it became clear that South Koreans were upset about more than just beef. Critics accused Lee of bending to U.S. interests and arrogantly refusing to build consensus before major policy decisions. Protesters were demanding last week that he resign.
Lee tried to explain his motivations Thursday. It was part of an apology that was considerably more detailed and introspective than his first public apology, in late May. "In retrospect, I was in a hurry after being elected president," he said.
Restrictions on imports of U.S. beef had been in place here since 2003, when the first case of mad cow disease was confirmed in a cow slaughtered in Washington state. The curbs had become a major obstacle to congressional ratification of the U.S.-South Korea free-trade deal, which was signed last summer.
Lee lifted a ban on all U.S. beef imports April 18 while on a visit to Washington. His decision, made with little consultation, came hours before he was to meet with Bush.
Lee said Thursday that he had moved quickly in the belief this would speed approval of the free-trade agreement and help him meet his campaign promise to increase economic growth: "I did not want to miss this golden opportunity."
Meanwhile, a devastating truckers' strike over fuel prices showed signs of winding down. In the past week, the strike has delayed more than $6 billion worth of freight. But on Thursday, about 2,100 truckers returned to work.
Still, more strikes are planned for next month, and opposition groups said Thursday that they were "deeply disappointed" that Lee has refused to renegotiate the beef deal.
Harden reported from Tokyo.