Will South Korea's Gov't Collapse Over US Beef?

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 6/11/2008 01:00:00 AM
The headlines coming out of South Korea may give one the mistaken impression that President Lee Myung-Bak's administration is teetering on the edge of collapse because of a controversy over beef imports from the USA. Lee's entire cabinet has already offered to resign. It is indeed true that the protesters who seem intent on slowing South Korea to a standstill are voicing their displeasure over South Korea allowing imports once again of US beef that is over 30 months of age and more prone to incidences of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), better known as mad cow disease. In 2003, the country banned US beef imports over mad cow fears. More recently, South Korea has started to import US beef, provided that it was under 30 months of age. In April of this year, though, it reached an agreement with the US on importing beef above that age ceiling in exchange for trade concessions from the US. Remember the putative US-South Korea trade deal? It is stalled partly because congresspersons from farm states want the Korean market to drop restrictions to American beef imports before a vote on it will be allowed in Congress. In response to local protests, the South Korean government requested that the US not send aged beef a few days ago, but that hasn't assuaged the protesters.

I have doubts whether this brouhaha has much to do with the safety of US beef. Given that Americans are hardly being affected by cases of this disease, there is little reason to believe exports of aged beef will cause South Koreans to keel over. Instead, the real beef is over South Korea adopting a wider package of neoliberal reforms to revitalize supposedly moribund Korean industry. My interest is not about beef imports per se. Rather, it is that cottoning up to Sammy at this point in time is both politically malodorous and unlikely to bring much in terms of economic benefits like Lee promises anyway. With the US economy stuck in neutral-cum-reverse, there are plenty of other countries out there to cotton up to that won't get you stuck with the "American lackey" designation and may generate more trade in the process.

Koreans have honed their protest culture to a fine art. As neoliberal reforms have stalled, the country is also faced with mounting inflation at home due to rising prices of, among other things, fuel. Like in many other parts of the world, those reliant on gas have decided to go on strike. It seems the world is becoming increasingly united by three things: inflation, fuel protests, and anti-American sentiment:

Truck drivers, following the lead of unions in a number of countries across Asia and Europe, voted on Monday to go on strike over rising fuel prices. They ignored the government's $10.2 billion financial aid package announced a day before and designed in part to cushion the impact of mounting energy costs. Other unions also voted on whether to strike and slow down production at auto plants and other factories.

The growing political storm has all but blocked the government's plans for major economic reform, including tax cuts, mass privatisation of major state-run firms and banks and efforts to make the country more accessible to foreign investment. The new conservative-dominated parliament has been unable to sit because the opposition has boycotted its opening.

"The current crisis signifies a deeper public malaise in Korea, risking to dampen economic growth over the coming year," said Hong Kong-based HSBC Asia economist Frederic Neumann. "The second big worry is that consumer and business sentiment takes another hit, thus depressing domestic demand at a time when exports could show signs of buckling."