S. Koreans Have New Regard for U.S. Beef

U.S. beef is on sale again in South Korean stores after months of protests spurred by fears of mad cow disease.
U.S. beef is on sale again in South Korean stores after months of protests spurred by fears of mad cow disease. (By Blaine Harden -- The Washington Post)
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By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, December 10, 2008

SEOUL, Dec. 9 -- South Korea's beef over U.S. beef is finally over.

So are the months of anti-beef rallies and riots that paralyzed downtown Seoul this year and cost South Korea an estimated $2.5 billion. So are the human chains of concerned housewives surrounding meat lockers containing U.S. beef. So are the beef-focused apologies of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, whose dreadful poll numbers forced him to beg voters to forgive him for failure to "fathom the people's mind."

Now, in the winter of their consumerism, the people have changed their mind.

Low-priced U.S. beef has appeared in supermarkets here in recent days, after a decision by three major retailers to start selling it again, and the reaction has been brisk business and no political fuss. Fifty tons of U.S. beef disappeared from shelves the first day it was offered for sale.

"It is our national character to get upset easily and then to forget all about it," said Park Eun-ah, 48, a romance novelist who lives in Seoul and Paris.

Park was at the meat counter at E-Mart, a large supermarket, where he had just purchased a package of barbecue beef imported from the United States. Park noted with pleasure that it was much cheaper than beef from South Korea.

Although the hysteria over U.S. beef is gone, a bitter aftertaste remains. The JoongAng Daily, a major newspaper here, said in a recent editorial that the episode had tarnished South Korea's international image.

The protests "showed that many people in this country lack scientific commonsense and chose to believe scurrilous stories instead," the paper said. "Sensationalism and distortion snatched the ground from the feet of scientists and experts."

Trouble began in April after Lee decided during a visit to Washington to lift a ban imposed in 2003, when the first U.S. case of mad cow disease was confirmed in Washington state.

By agreeing to allow U.S. beef into his country again, Lee intended to remove a major obstacle to congressional approval of a free trade agreement that experts said could increase South Korea-U.S. trade by about $20 billion a year.

His decision backfired. Long-standing worry about U.S. beef exploded into a formidable grass-roots political movement. Night after night, as spring turned into summer, thousands of middle-class parents brought their children to a central square in Seoul, where they held up candles and grumbled about American beef.

"I am afraid of American beef," Cha Yoon-min, 13, told The Washington Post in June after attending a protest with his mother, a lawyer. "I could study hard in school. I could get a good job, and then I could eat beef and just die."

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