Friday, June 27, 2008

Me to South Koreans: Why Are You Guys (Not) Having Such a Cow?

If someone can explain to me what exactly is going on with South Korean protests over U.S. beef imports I would greatly appreciate it. I've been following this story for some time--ever since a South Korean student of mine this past semester passionately brought it up to me in a meeting. Are the protests products of mass hysteria? Are they really anti-globalization protests? Pent up anger over many years of hearing about various cases of U.S. military personnel abuse of Koreans? I just don't see how a one in a billion or so chance of mad cow disease can inspire such vehement unrest. Any insights?


Blogger Mike said...

As a current resident of South Korea, I wish I could help you out, but I'm equally puzzled. All of your suggestions are feasible, but none really mesh with my experience here, so I'm at a loss. The first time I was approached about the subject, I asked how many people had died as a result of contaminated meat, and was told it was less than 10. Given the amount other dangerous stuff going on here - smoking, drinking, wild driving, etc - I don't see why people would get so up in arms about the beef.

Plain old anti-American sentiment (directed against current political, social, or cultural trends or against the actions of American GIs in Korea) doesn't seem right to me, because Koreans, somehow, have a much better image of America than just about anyone else in the world. Anyone our age and interested in English would love to study in the USA, but, to their dismay, it's too expensive and visas are too hard to get, so they have to go to Canada or Australia. This is mostly the same demographic that's involved in the protests.

Anti-globalization sentiment doesn't fit the bill either. It's not like they replaced the American imports with domestically produced beef. Since Korea's so tiny, and since it has chosen to try to remain largely independent regarding rice production, there's no room for cattle here, so most comes from Australia. Plus, American restaurants (McDonald's, KFC, Pizza Hut, TGI Friday's, etc) have not received any bad publicity despite the fact that, if eaten regularly, they're probably worse for your health than potentially-contaminated beef.

So it does seem to me like some sort of mass hysteria. I'm not in Seoul, so I haven't seen the heart of the protests, but even here, I see candlelight vigils downtown at 4AM, where police in riot gear just sit around in case the protestors happen to get uppity all of a sudden. Some of the participants are high-school students. People at open-mic nights sing quirky little protest songs. Seems like everyone has their own reason for getting into it.

I think a lot of the anger is directed at the president in a kind of personal fashion. I'm not exactly sure about the platform he ran on, but I don't think he advertised his intention to resume the beef imports. Maybe people were just caught off guard and feel a bit betrayed? Though I'd guess the people protesting weren't the ones who voted for him in the first place.

I'll try to ask around this week. I was mostly moderately annoyed by the phenomenon, but now that you've labeled it "Mass Hysteria" I'd like to investigate a little more...

11:56 PM  
Blogger Robot said...

Mike!!! When I posted this I thought "wouldn't it be nice if our one correspondent on the ground, so to speak, could give me some insight." Many thanks for the comment. It's certainly interesting to hear that your impression is the same as those reading about it over here. Do let us know what you're able to find.

12:07 AM  
Blogger Bruge said...

As a korean who has been staying in Seoul for summer vacation, I want to leave a commnet related to this situation-mass protests on U.S beef. Before President Lee Government, which is led by the present president, there was also the time that the Korean Government, which led by No, Mu-Hyun had an import agreement on U.S beef. At that time, it was officially and governmentally acknowledged in both Korea and U.S, that U.S would be not going to import beefs, which include SRM, which stands for "Specified Risk Material". It was also an agreement that U.S beefs which are older than 30 months would not be going to be exported to Korea at that time. However, even at that time, it was revealed that back bones of cattles were exported to Korea, which officially meant a broken agreement due to the fact that a back bone is one of SRMs, either U.S government did it as a mistake or beef industial companies meant it for profits. After the accident, the Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease, so called Mad-cow disease, was noticed in the U.S. Because of that, Korea officially stopped the U.S beefs imports as the agreed written contract with U.S. Time has passed and it finally came here, the time we live now. Unlike the past government, President Lee somehow has degraded the level of contracts and reduced many conditions of U.S beefs. I admit that he has wanted to facilitate the free trade agreement with U.S. However, in this time, his lowed agreement on U.S beefs import has some dangerous probablities in the perspective of one of Koreans. One reason is that it is officially true that the probablity of revelation of prion, which is a protein particle; the core reason of Mad-cow disease, gets higher when the year of cows get older. Because of that, in the trade of Japan, they only import U.S beefs, which are 12-17 months. Due to the different wealth of countries between S.Korea and Japan, the most of Koreans do not want the same condition that Japan has now. However, the possibility of that U.S beefs older than 30 months can be exported to Korea is one of serious reasons why Koreans has been protesting against this import as a group for longer than one month. The second reason why Koreans ban on U.S beefs is related to SRMs. Every country has different cultures and it can be also found in eating styles. There are some parts of cattles that Koreans are likely eating, such as tongue or big or small intestines. Also, beef foods made of sort of soups and stews are our cultural foods. These parts were not able to be imported in the past, but now the story is different. I know that many americans do not eat those parts of cattels, but they are apparently SRMs and the truth is that they are going to be exported to Korea. Maybe, you may have a question such as "Then, why do you eat your srm parts of your countries cattles? Even though they are offically considered as dangerous parts. Well, with the question, the most of people say that it is due to the usage of animal feeds and various medicines for increasing the speed of cattles' growing. Koreans basically do not use those things to cattles and because of that, it was not reported that we have a dead patient because of the mad-cow disease. Also, almost all Korean cattle breeders have greatly smaller size of stock farms. It is clearly different with the U.S, which raise cattles in a magnificent stock farm size, which are sort of cages to cattles due to the dense place for each one cow. It is known that the seriously dense place and inferior cattle rasing surroundings are really bad even for cattles. (As you might know, New-york times one reported and evaluated some cows as "Trash". You might have seen a cattle's video, which shows that one cattle was trembling with being beaten and trying to stand up but couldn't.) Now back to the real story, at the past time, the SRMs were officially restricted to be exported to Korea in the U.S Government's watch. However, despite of the agreed contract, the back bone was imported and now, our president says that it gives almost all the powers of medical inspection on imported cattles to U.S and he says lets U.S cattle export companies do them instead of official Korean Govermental centers. He also says he lets the cattle companies the will weather they are going to decide import beefs which are older than 30 months. With the situation, koreans are seriously asking to president and U.S cattle companies, that "Even though U.S cattle companies exported beefs, including SRMs even in the situation it was officially and governmentally restricted by the U.S Government, are they really going to import beefs which can be safely eaten?" The third reason is related to the president's behavior, which is more likely to betray. During the time when peaceful protests with candle lights have been going on for almost more than one month (well, because is started even earlier than may 1st), but president has kept ignoring the people's saying and finally, he just passes the laws about cattle imports. That, that really brought bitter sadness on people and eventually brought mass protests, which are still continuing even the time when you will see this comment. The ongoing protests are not simply happened only because of thoughts about probable mad-cow disease, but they are also about the voices for our president and wishes that they want our president more listen to their voices..

I really appreciate both of your comments, even though I saw 'Mass hysteria, which really broke my hearts.. I just want you guys know that we are not that emotional and there are obviously some reasons why people are acting like that. I hope my comments somehow help you guys to understand the situation in Korea and really hope you to understand the reasons even for a little bit.

10:11 AM  
Blogger Robot said...

Bruge: Thanks very much for your comments. They were very helpful. From what you're saying it seems like there are a number of pent up frustrations--which at the core, you suggest, have to do with the people's suspicion that their voices aren't being heard by the representative government -- contributing to the protests. This issue of the greater risks of prions in South Korea due to the greater percentage of the cow that is typically eaten is certainly a concern I didn't fully know about. As for the 'mass hysteria' thesis, I certainly meant no offense. Liberal Americans, like myself, are long accustomed to using the vocabulary of psychological disorders to describe the right-ward lurch of the U.S. body politic.

1:11 PM  
Blogger John Liberty said...

It's because they care about not being heard, whatever the issue. We don't even have a voice.

2:14 PM  
Blogger Mike said...


I'd also like to thank you for your comment. I hope you realize that my use of "Mass Hysteria" was mostly tongue-in-cheek. Of course we all realize that there must be some serious reasons behind such intense and prolonged protests, and we aren't ready to chalk it up to Koreans simply being overly emotional. The term just serves to indicate our confusion over the matter.

I agree with what you've said, and, having asked a few friends over the past few days, most of them give similar explanations and say they are primarily frustrated by the feeling of being ignored by a president who was sworn in less than a year ago.

Nonetheless, the protests still seem over-the-top to me. As far as I know, the meat isn't really all that dangerous, and like I said, there are much more dangerous things that people could be getting worked up about. Not to mention that one could solve the issue personally simply by resolving not to buy American beef (though I've heard that some stores, including HomePlus, the Korean equivalent of Walmart, which is owned jointly by Samsung and Tesco, have been falsely labeling American beef as Australian).

9:39 AM  
Blogger will said...

Regarding the dangers of American beef "Bovine Bioterrorism and The Perfect Pathogen" (terrible name imho) by Gabe Kirchheimer certainly made me think twice about US beef, and ended up pushing me over the edge to vegetarianism.

full text:

It's from 2002 so I don't know if any policies or statistics have changed substantially since then.

7:33 PM  
Blogger will said...

sorry, trying again for full url

7:34 PM  
Blogger will said...

Ok: don't know why that's not copying in, the url should end in:


7:35 PM  
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4:04 AM  

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