What’s the Beef?

October 16, 2009

When I started this blog a little over one year ago, I had some specific Korean events that I wanted to write about. One of them was the U.S. Beef Crisis in the summer of 2008. Alas, a wicked combo of procrastination and forgetfulness resulted in this intention completely vacating my mind until very recently.

Lee Myung-bak

Lee Myung-bak

On the 19th December 2007 a Korean man named Lee Myung Bak, who had been born exactly 66 years prior to that day, received a rather splendid birthday present; he was elected president of the Korean republic with 49% of the vote and won the largest ever margin over a rival candidate since proper elections began in Korea in 1987.  Oddly enough, I had been born exactly 28 years prior to that day myself and I was celebrating with a little party in my apartment, having been given a day off work due to the election. The victory for Mr. Lee marked the return to power of the conservative Grand National (Hannara) Party for the first time in 10 years and was declared a landslide. However, just two months after his inauguration his approval ratings plummeted to 28% and by June of 2008 they had fallen to 17%. That summer, the main streets of Korea’s capital filled with enraged, violent mobs that denounced the president and called for his impeachment. Their beef, it transpired, was beef itself.

In 2003 a reported case of BSE in American cattle caused several countries to ban the import of U.S. beef, Korea amongst them. The U.S., for its part, was subsequently able to demonstrate that its beef industry was well regulated and had a fairly robust safety record. Of the 3 reported cases of variant Creutzfeld-Jakob disease (“mad cow disease”) in the United States, two occurred in people who had spent a long time in the UK (which has the dubious honour of being the origin of 167 of the world’s total 213 cases of the disease) and the third in a person who had spent a long time in Saudi Arabia. In all cases, no link was established with the consumption of American beef. The U.S. government lobbied hard to resume beef exports to East-Asia, having lost billions of dollars in trade, and gradually restrictions were lifted. Japan, the largest importer of U.S. beef, finally lifted its ban in the summer of 2006.

Fear of the crazed cow

Fear of the crazed cow

By early 2008 in Korea, the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement was due for ratification. This agreement had largely been completed during the term of Lee’s predecessor, Roh Moo-hyun, and even then it had proved controversial. Many Koreans, particularly small farmers, had taken to the streets to protest the FTA with one memorable incident featuring a taxi driver who deliberately set himself on fire. Part of the FTA included the relaxation of restrictions on U.S. beef imports and the new president, perhaps buoyed by his considerable election success and somewhat overconfident, simply rushed through the beef negotiations and swiftly approved the resumption of imports whilst largely abandoning the Korean demands on the matter. Crucially, the South Korean government misunderstood the details of the agreement and interpreted a leniency in U.S. animal feed regulations to mean exactly the opposite i.e. that the regulations were in fact tougher than they were, which contributed largely to the hasty conclusion of the talks. The administration had committed a blunder and things would soon go from bad to shitfuck horrible.

Shortly afterwards, the Korean TV channel MBC aired an episode of the news program PD Diary with a segment detailing the apparent threat of “mad cow disease” to Korean society, should U.S. beef imports resume. The show aired footage that it purported to be BSE infected cattle in the U.S. being prepped for human consumption as well as an American woman said to be suffering from variant Cruetzfeld-Jakob Disease. In addition, they broadcast data that apparently showed Korean people were genetically more pre-disposed towards contracting vCJD from dodgy beef. Following the broadcast, and combined with the revelations concerning the FTA beef import negotiations, an outraged Korean public got themselves mobilized and hit the streets.

Massive candlelit vigil in City Hall, Seoul

Massive candlelit vigil in City Hall, Seoul

Protestors began to gather around the areas of City Hall and the Cheongye Stream in downtown Seoul for mass demonstrations that began initially in the form of candlelit vigils (a form of protest that has recently become common in Korea). Rather unusually, a large number of teenage girls attended these demonstrations and could be seen carrying banners with such pleads as “I have only lived for 15 years!” and others imploring people to protect their beloved boy bands from the dangers of American beef. Leaving aside the dubious idea that encephalitis amongst Korean pop stars would be a bad thing, the fact that this event had captured the imagination of Korean teenagers soon led to the circulation of rather wild rumours online. Youthful passions were further inflamed by Internet reports of mad cow disease being transferrable from cosmetic and toiletry products made from cow parts, that it had even killed American vegetarians and it was likely to wipe out the entire Korean population (owing to the susceptible genes) and that, bizarrely, Lee Myung-Bak had also decided to cede ownership of the disputed island of Dokdo to the Japanese. Right on cue, a smattering of Korean celebrities chimed in with their own histrionic condemnations and the protests only grew. The concerns and general ire of the protests were not limited to the beef controversy alone, however. Trade unionists and other groups soon joined the students to protest largely against the FTA and what was perceived to be the cowardly abandonment of Korean sovereignty to America and accompanying globalist forces. Soon, in a shameless, cynical and entirely unsurprising manoeuvre, the then recently routed opposition party got firmly behind the protests and joined in on the condemnation of the Lee administration. It became a political storm that was many things to many people. For the opposition parties it represented their first real opportunity to mount a counter offensive against the big conservative win in the presidential election, they could smell the blood in the water as Lee’s ratings plummeted. With the protests they got to show the administration that they still had some fight left in them and couldn’t be counted out just then. For the younger students it represented their first engagement with politics and perhaps their first opportunity to participate in a long Korean tradition of political protest and remonstration with authority that had been a resurgent feature of Korean life since the pro-democracy movement of the 1980s (although the roots of it extend far back in Korean history). For the trade unionists and older, seasoned protestors it became another opportunity to voice their vociferous opposition to the FTA, globalism, the perceived weakening of Korean sovereignty and also to tap into a wider anti-American malaise that had been simmering, and occasionally boiling over,  for years. For the Lee Myung-Bak administration it was a brutal reality check. It seemed they had overestimated their public support whilst simultaneously underestimating the power of the opposition and other groups on the left.

The demonstrators had established a makeshift camp in the area around City Hall and Cheongye stream in downtown Seoul. Whilst the protests were generally peaceful during the day, and took the form of candlelit vigils, they were prone to turning violent at night with frequent clashes between police and protestors. These confrontations grew over the weeks of May and June and the police found themselves accused of using heavy handed tactics on the protestors with witnesses reporting police using water cannons at close range which inflicted injuries. A photograph of a policeman with his boot on the neck of a prone Korean girl was widely circulated, further stoking tensions. Soon, international news agencies were reporting on the mass demonstrations and circulating footage of Koreans tipping over police buses and setting them on fire. Whilst certainly not intending to excuse or defend police brutality, I think it is worth pointing out that many Korean riot police are little more than 19 – 20-year-old boys performing their obligatory national service. From what I’ve been told, many of them are utterly terrified of the situations they find themselves in and, although I can only speculate, it may be that they are poorly trained in the short time that they serve in those positions.

After weeks of unrest, and significant cost to the country, Lee Myung-Bak issued a public apology on June 18th and resolved to delay the resumption of U.S. beef imports until some conditions regarding the age of the cattle were renegotiated.

“Even for an urgent national issue, I should have paid attention to what people want. Sitting on a hill near Cheong Wa Dae (The Blue House, Presidential residence) on the night of June 10, watching the candlelight vigil, I blamed myself for not serving the people better,”1)

Faced with the political crisis, the entire South Korean cabinet offered their resignations to the President, although he never finally accepted them. Lee dispatched a delegation to Washington to amend the agreement and ensure that only younger cattle under the age of 30 months were exported for the Korea market.

What the fuck just happened?

"What the fuck just happened?"

Thereafter, things calmed down significantly. The anger of the protestors fizzled out very swiftly and the whole controversy disappeared virtually overnight. In discussion with a Korean colleague recently, this phenomenon was explained to me by referring to a Korean metaphor of a steel cooking pot that heats up and cools extremely quickly. My own explanation as to why the protests died down so swiftly isn’t so eloquent. The whole issue was, appropriately enough, bullshit. American beef was perfectly safe and everyone barring a few hysterical kids knew it.

The World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) had recognised the USA as being a “controlled-risk” country for BSE, meaning that they implemented the necessary safety regulations and their beef was safe for trade and consumption. Ironically, Korean beef itself is held to be of “undetermined risk status” by the OIE as Korea has never submitted the relevant materials for the organisation to verify. Unfortunately, the comments by the then U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Mike Johanns, aimed at reassuring countries of the safety of U.S. beef were interpreted as a back-handed insult by Koreans opposing the resumption of beef imports.

“We talk about science. Based upon good science, our beef is absolutely safe.”2)

Spare me my life!

"Spare me my life!"

The MBC show PD Notebook had broadcast blatant distortions in its programme detailing the apparent risks of U.S. beef. The images of fucked-up, drastically ill cows being forced to stand with electric prods were not, in fact, BSE infected cattle but, rather, sick and ill-treated animals that had been secretly filmed by the American Humane Society in a video expose aimed at revealing the abuses of certain cattle farmers. The footage had nothing to do with BSE. The American woman on the same show who was said to be suffering from variant Cruetzfeld-Jakob Disease (i.e. the transmitted kind you can get from eating unsafe beef) was in fact suffering from non-variant CJD, the very rare affliction that can just happen to very unlucky people. (Basically, God singles out one person in a hundred million and throws some CJD their way for shits and giggles.) The show was found to have deliberately mistranslated the English dialogue to suggest the woman was suffering from vCJD. The data purporting to show that Koreans carried a gene that made them more susceptible to contracting vCJD in fact showed nothing of the sort. Professor Kim Yong-sun, on whose thesis the data was based, attacked the news media and opposition politicians for distorting his findings. His report on a specific gene type carried by 94% of Koreans was eventually spun into the allegation that vCJD would kill 94% of the Korean population as the same gene type was present in worldwide cases people with vCJD. Professor Kim was understandably upset as he had been accused by angry mobs of withholding dangerous information from the Korean public and on one occasion had his house pelted with animal shit.

The producers would later have to apologize for these and other distortions following a number of investigations from The Korean Communications Commission and eventually the Seoul Central District Prosecutors Office. However, the prosecutor’s decision to indict five producers from MBC itself led to charges that the action was a serious infringement on press freedoms with political motivations coming from an administration eager to gain tighter controls over the media.

The U.S. beef import issue neatly summarized in cartoon form.

The protest ended swiftly, and U.S. beef imports quietly resumed in Korea, but Lee Myung-bak and his administration remained tarnished in the eyes of the Korean public. I have to admit to being guilty of indulging in some serious Schadenfreude whilst watching a freshly anointed conservative leader inadvertently, but thoroughly, pissing away his popularity and becoming a figure of hatred for all generations of Koreans. That said, it’s unwise to transpose western notions of conservative/right, liberal/left to the Korean political dynamic. Amongst the schoolchildren I dealt with everyday, President Lee had the dubious distinction of being introduced to them as the man who wanted to feed them dangerous meat. I did manage, however, to talk with one particularly astute high school student who expressed embarrassment at the hysteria of the beef protests. This young man told me that he and some of his friends knew very well that U.S. beef was not dangerous and that the furore surrounding the issue was exaggerated and unjustified. Certainly, that view was shared by generally every international observer at the time (including yours truly) and the global media attention that eventually came to the protests may have contributed towards their abrupt ending. As was widely reported, Korea was the only country in the world in which protests against U.S. beef imports occurred. Also widely reported was the fact that U.S. beef was regarded as perfectly safe by international monitoring bodies. Unlike the charged, inflamed debate within Korea, the outside view was one of detached befuddlement, nobody could really figure out why so many Koreans were going apeshit. It is possible that the eventual exposure of the issue on the world stage revealed the falsehood at its core and, combined with Lee’s apology and concession on renegotiating the beef import deal, led to the comprehensive abandonment of the movement against the government.

Korean wet t-shirt contest gets out of hand

Korean wet t-shirt contest gets out of hand

Koreans love a good protest and there have been fresh ones this year following the suicide of disgraced ex-president Roh Moo-hyun (seems many people blame Lee Myung-bak for that as well). It’s unlikely that this specific issue surrounding U.S. beef will resurface but the broad resentment towards the office of the president remains, as does the anti-American sentiment that is easily inflamed. I currently live a mere five minutes from where the beef protests took place last year and there is always the possibility that I’ll have ringside seats to the next great Korean dust-up. The beef about beef may have been illegitimate but the passion of the protestors was an exhilarating and impressive sight. There are some foreign visitors to Korea who are quick to dismiss the society here as being “too conservative” yet there are hundreds of thousands of Koreans, young and old, who will take to the streets, battle with cops, and scream that their president is a traitorous scumbag who ought to be in prison. The overall issue is an ambivalent one. Pseudo-science, media fear-mongering and demagoguery ought to be avoided but the right of people to remonstrate with authority is a fine thing and something that Koreans had to fight and die for not so long ago. Should any new and exciting protests kick off I will do my best to cover them here. In other words, watch this space for fresh beef.




1)      President Lee apologizes for mishaps of U.S. beef deal. The Hankyoreh, June 20, 2008.

2)      Mike Johanns quoted on iCelebZ.com

Due to some unavoidable interruptions, this post was written over a significant amount of time. At present I have no inclination to backtrack into the reading I did and smother the text with hyperlinks. Instead here are some of the articles that I used as sources –

Korea Slow to Clear Its Own Mad Cow Assessment. Chosun Ilbo, May 20, 2008

Prosecutors say PD Diary deliberately twisted facts. JoongAng Daily, July 30, 2008

Brainwashed by the Internet. The Dong-a Ilbo, May 05, 2008

The Medium Is the Monster. Chosun Ilbo, May 07, 2008

S. Korea delays U.S. beef imports. CNN/asia, June 02, 2008

Prosecutors indict “PD Notebook” producers. The Hankyoreh, July 30, 2008

‘MBC Distorted Risk of US Beef’. The Korea Times, July 29, 2008

Beef scare program dupes crusading schoolgirls. May 07, 2008

Going Overboard with Mad Cow Scare. Chosun Ilbo, May 02, 2008



  1. Imformative stuff. The longest internet article i’ve ever finished.

  2. for good reason.

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