Even as the Korean National Assembly and the U.S. Congress have yet to ratify and accept the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement, the import of U.S. beef and the fear of mad cow disease have already made people dizzy in Korea.
People are concerned with safety, which is just an essential, natural reaction. The media focusing on the issue have spread fear among people, because there have been no sufficient discussion about the dangers of meat imports from the U.S. or anywhere else, and whether or not the government is adequately prepared to manage the risk and implement strict inspections and regulations.
It should be recalled that in 2003, the Korean government banned imports of American beef after the mad cow disease was discovered in the United States. This move is similar to what other countries have done, such as Japan. To move the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement forward , both Korean and U.S. trade officials agreed to resume imports in April 2008, just ahead of a summit between President Lee Myung-bak and U.S. President George W. Bush in Washington.
On May 13, 2008, news programs featured many reports about the risks of mad cow disease in U.S. beef imports. The media reports inflated the risks and increased fears among the public about the mad cow disease. The reports claimed that 94 percent of Koreans have a gene that makes them more vulnerable than Americans and British people to human variant of mad cow disease. The reports fanned fears of mad cow disease, making the issue popular and sparking protests from opposition lawmakers, farmers, and civil activists against U.S. beef imports.
Since then, thousands of people staged candlelight vigils in central Seoul to protest against imports of U.S. beef. If the government does not adequately listen to the people, and do not take positive concrete measures to address these fears, the government is in danger of political collapse. The target for the political opposition is to revoke the beef deal, which means that the U.S.-Korea FTA is to be abandoned.
What are the options for the government to revoke the beef deal? Even if the opposition is in power, they will face similar dilemmas. Critics have launched an Internet-based signature campaign to call for the impeachment of the president, who has been in office only for three months and has already been hit by a set of scandals involving his aides.
In my opinion, the best scenario for the government is to maintain agreement in principle for U.S. beef imports so as not to backtrack on an earlier commitment in the U.S.-Korea FTA, but ensure that detailed government regulations and safety standards are adequate and in place. This will not violate the agreement, but will simply extend the timetable for implementation, and soothe the fears of the public. In the process of preparing the regulations, various industry, health and consumer organizations should be directly involved, with the results widely disseminated to the public for transparency. There should also be contingency plans in case of the outbreak of mad cow disease and similar risks from the US beef imports, as well as other aspects of the US Korea FTA. I wish this problem will be solved by both the Lee administration and the people, through discussion and dialogue.