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South Korean Gov't Mishandled Beef Deal
[Analysis] Korean netizens continue candlelight vigils
Ronda Hauben (netizen2)     Print Article 
Published 2008-06-08 11:47 (KST)   
Violence on the streets of downtown Seoul, June 8.
©2008 OhmyNews Kwon Woo-sung
Korean netizens and citizens from all sectors of Korean society have been holding candlelight demonstrations to protest the actions of their newly elected President Lee Myung-bak.

The catalyst setting off the protests was the Korean government's lifting of the ban on the import of US beef despite the dangers to the population that such poorly inspected beef entails. It has been reported that 65 other countries restrict the import of beef from the US.

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This, however, is but one of a series of important issues fueling the continuing mass protests against the government. On April 18, the day before Lee was to meet with US President George Bush for their first summit, the Korean government agreed to remove the restrictions on the import of US beef into South Korea. Beef imports into South Korea had been suspended in 2003 after mad cow infected beef was discovered in the US. Prior to 2003, South Korea had been the third largest importer of US beef.

The US has a very lax system of testing for mad cow disease, also known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). There are no known cures for the disease. Even downer cows too sick to be able to walk, had been slaughtered for their beef, despite a regulation prohibiting such slaughter.

While cows 30 months of age and older at the time of slaughter are in general not sold for food consumption in the US and elsewhere, the agreement between the US and South Korean governments included the import of beef from cattle over 30 months old that meet the same lax standards as necessary to be sold in the US. In contrast, to resume export of US beef to Japan, the US had to agree to a major inspection regime and the export to Japan of beef only from animals 20 months old or younger at the time of slaughter.

Similarly, parts of the animal called specified risk materials (SRM) are usually excluded from export and use. These include cow brains, spinal columns, eyes and other parts of the animal that are especially prone to spread the disease.

The Korean government allowed a lower standard of SRMs in their initial agreement with the US than even the US allows. Three extra cattle parts, including transverse processes and spinous processes of the cervical, thoracic and lumbar vertebrae, are defined as SRMs in the US but were excluded from the original agreement between the US and South Korea.

Japan had negotiated an exclusion from export to it of the entire head, except for the tongue and cheek meat, besides all other SRM. Japan also negotiated the exclusion of all SRM for cattle it imports from the US regardless of age.

A video of a cow in the US that was unable to walk but was passed as acceptable to be slaughtered and its beef included in the human food supply was distributed on the Internet by netizens. Similarly, there has been serious discussion online of the dangers to the Korean population that importing US beef poses. The knowledge gained from research and discussion of the facts about mad cow disease helps to clarify especially that cattle slaughtered after 30 months of age, have a higher risk of causing the variant of mad cow disease in humans (Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease). This is a fatal disease with no known cure.

South Korean government officials like Lee and US officials including the U.S. ambassador to South Korea, however, have belittled the actual dangers posed by the disease. [1]

Lee is quoted telling the Korean public that "you don't have to eat American beef if you don't want to." The problem with such a statement is that individuals in Korea have no way to know the origin of the beef used in restaurants, in school lunches, in the military and in other venues.

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Similarly US Ambassador Alexander Vershbow is quoted claiming that there is "an international scientific" basis for the agreement to import US beef into Korea, and that beef over 30 months old has been confirmed safe in many scientific tests. The overwhelming scientific information online and being read by netizens in South Korea contradicts that statement.

The US government tests only a small percentage of its cattle for BSE and doesn't require the documenting by the medical profession of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease as mad cow disease in humans. Hence, there is no basis for the US ambassador to claim a scientific basis for the safety of US beef. The statements of these officials are merely seen as disrespectful to the health concerns of the Korean public.

Prior to the demonstrations, the Korean president had planned to introduce a series of neoliberal practices which have inflamed citizen and netizen public opinion so thoroughly that Lee's advisors now caution against implementing any of these practices in the near future.

More police and demonstrator clashes came this morning, June 8.
©2008 OhmyNews Yoo Sung-ho
Violence in the early hours of June 8 in downtown Seoul.
©2008 OhmyNews Yoo Sung-ho
In addition to complaints about Lee's actions regarding the beef deal, there has been opposition to the Korean government's plan to privatize Korean utilities, the Korean health care system and to build a long canal to promote the tourist trade despite the fact that building such a canal will uproot many people and much property.

Initially the thrust of the demonstrations was to nullify the beef deal with the US. As the demonstrations continue, however, the demand is to have Lee resign. Among the chants of the protesters is, "Lee Myung-bak step down."

A petition to impeach Lee had gotten over 1.3 million signatures by late May. That represents about 3 percent of the South Korean population. Protesters felt that an expression of the grassroots sentiment was appropriate even if the official impeachment process requires the actions of the representatives of the National Assembly.

At first, the candlelight demonstrations were initiated by middle school and high school students, especially middle school girls, using their cell phones and the Internet. In early May, it was common to see middle and high school students at the demonstrations, wearing their school uniforms. The candle girl, a middle school girl holding a lit candle, became the symbol of the protests.

The Korean government moved quickly to have school officials try to prevent student participation in the demonstrations. It is reported that teachers were told to read the messages on high school students' cell phones and to discourage students from taking part in the demonstrations. University students and people of all ages and occupations, however, stepped in to continue the struggle. On May 31 there were an estimated 100,000 people participating in the candlelight demonstrations held throughout South Korea.

The mainstream conservative media in Korea and in the US originally applauded Lee's election claiming that he had won by an unprecedented margin. They left out the fact that a relatively small percentage of the population voted in the election. Also, most media failed to mention that though netizens and the Internet had played a significant role in the previous presidential election in South Korea in 2002, the online community had been excluded from the 2007 election.

A new addition to the election law had been put in place for the 2007 presidential campaign and election that led to the censorship of much of the netizen participation. Over 65,000 online comments by netizens relating to the election were removed from the Internet and over 1,000 netizens received summons to report to the police. [2]

According to the civic organization People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy (PSPD), even some netizens in Japan and the US were told to report to the police in South Korea because of their posts on Korean Internet sites.

The imposition of such censorship with its arbitrary enforcement and penalties left many netizens unable to discuss the election.

After the election, however, when it again became possible to discuss political issues, netizens in Korea took up to actively discuss the nature of democracy and the importance of having government officials who are the servants not the masters of the citizens.

A cartoon circulating online and published in the Internet newspaper Pressian captures the gulf between Korean citizens and netizens and the conservative government officials they are demonstrating against.

The cartoon shows a caricature of President Lee on a balcony above the protesters. Standing beside him is a mad cow. Lee is dressed in a police uniform and on his helmet is written 2MB. 2MB is the pejorative nickname netizens have given him. 2MB is both a pun on Lee's name (Lee in Korean sounds the same as the word for 2) and MB stands for Lee's initials and for the computer term megabytes. 2MB represents the limited mental capacity netizens attribute to Lee.

In the cartoon an arrow from the word 3MB pointing to the mad cow indicates it has a mental capacity of 3MB. Lee is shown asking how the people protesting pay for their candles, repeating the rumor that the protesters are being influenced from behind the scenes by someone manipulating them. The people respond that they pay for their candles from their own money. That they are not being manipulated but are protesting voluntarily for reasons of their own. The mad cow tells Lee that he should use more intelligence when talking to the people.

The description accompanying the cartoon referred to the public sphere provided by the Internet where netizens discuss and argue over issues. Lee is presented in the description with the cartoon, as failing to understand the Internet and its process of collectively developed knowledge.

Instead, he relies on conservative news media like the newspaper Chosun Ilbo. In the past, conservative newspapers like Chosun Ilbo were able to instruct politicians in the actions they should take. This represented a source of political power for the conservative media.

With the Internet and the emergence of netizens, this old form of political activity is being challenged.

As the cartoon demonstrates, the issue of what is an appropriate model for democracy for South Korea is a hot topic among netizens. Koreans have a proud tradition of struggle against the former military dictatorship in South Korea.

The Internet makes the old forms of hierarchical governance structures less tenable. In their place, it is becoming possible to create horizontal structures where all netizens can discuss and contribute in an equal fashion. The old institutional forms, like Lee's government structures, rely on vertical forms that are hierarchical. But these hierarchical forms are no longer adequate for the needs of the modern era.

The netizen movement in South Korea has pioneered how to create new democratic structures using the Internet and the horizontal forms it makes possible. [3] Among the forms that are being explored are a media using the Internet to provide live TV coverage of the demonstrations, the posting of many videos and photos and continuous online discussion and debate. One of the online video sites is the OhmyTV site, where there is live 24 hour coverage of the demonstrations.

The candlelight demonstrations, along with extensive discussion among netizens online, represent recognition among citizens and netizens that there is a need to broaden the forms of democracy in South Korea. The determination that no politicians be allowed to take the country back to its recent authoritarian past, is driving a resurgence of netizen activism that has not only surprised Korean politicians but American government officials as well. [4]

This resurgence of democratic activism in South Korea is setting an important example for how the Internet and netizens can help in the struggle for more democracy and against the neoliberal agenda. A 72-hour demonstration was held from June 5-7 and continued afterward. [5] Another demonstration is planned for Tuesday, June 10, to mark the 21st anniversary of the democratic uprising in South Korea that ended the military autocratic rule. [6]
1. Blaine Harden, " In S. Korea, a Reversal on US Beef Imports," Washington Post.

2. Ronda Hauben, "Netizens Censored in South Korean Presidential Election," OhmyNews International.

3. Ronda Hauben, "Online Grassroots Journalism and Participatory Democracy in South Korea."

4. Donald Kirk, "Time Running Out for Korean FTA," Asia Times.

5. Kim Hyun, "Protesters Undeterred by Lee's Partial Ban on US Beef Imports," Yonhap News Agency.

6. "Three Day Protest Against US Beef Concluded," Yonhap News Agency.

Revised 2008-06-10.

An earlier version of this article appears in Telepois.
©2008 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Ronda Hauben

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