Washington fiddles while Seoul burns
By Joseph A B Winder
What is the George W Bush administration thinking? Here we have a government in
a major United States ally in Northeast Asia facing a raging crisis that was
triggered by an action that its new and inexperienced government took under
political pressure from the US at the highest political level, and the Bush
administration's response is "this is your domestic political problem, you fix
Now it's true the Korean government's agreement to resume all imports of US
beef is sensible, in both country's interest, and long overdue. It's also true
that the scientific evidence all supports the US beef industry's contention
that beef imports from the United States pose absolutely no health hazard to
Korean consumers. But these facts are beside the point. The current outpouring
frustration and fury that was triggered by the agreement on beef imports is no
longer, if it ever was, about science. It is about feelings and emotions, and
until these feelings and emotions are assuaged, the crisis will continue to
escalate with potentially dangerous consequences for the overall US-Korea
alliance and relationship.
It's understandable that US officials would react to the public protests
against the beef agreement with a sense of frustration. Attempts to explain the
scientific evidence that buttresses the case in support of the agreement are
swamped by a campaign of disinformation led by irresponsible reporting by the
Korean media, particularly the TV stations. So, what else is new? Opposition
politicians, sensing an opportunity to wound the new South Korean president
politically, are going for the jugular by ratcheting up demands and refusing to
take "yes" for an answer to all attempts by President Lee Myung-bak to meet
Sounds just like politics as usual in Washington. Student activists are fanning
the flames in an attempt to recreate the atmosphere that existed when their
parents were students in the wake of the Kwangju massacre. This is how students
everywhere act when given the chance.
The problem is that this is not just another case of public protests against a
foreign government. The United States has enormous equities in its relationship
with South Korea, and the longer these demonstrations and protests continue,
the more risks these equities will be exposed to. Already there are signs of
discontent that the US military keeps adding hundreds of million of dollars to
its estimates of the costs it expects the Korean government to pay for the
relocation of its headquarters and troops away from the Seoul region. If the
protestors add grievances over the US-Korea military relationship into the mix,
a linchpin of the United States' Asian security posture could be threatened.
In the end, of course, responsibility for dealing with this crisis rests with
the South Korean government and people. But the Bush administration can and
should help. The crisis would not exist if the United States had not pressed
the Lee administration to accept an all-or-nothing deal to resume imports. It
has a political and moral obligation to help Lee defuse the crisis by
addressing the Korean people's concerns over the beef agreement. Nothing short
of this will do. What is needed here is a cooling off period so that emotions
can be defused and concerns addressed in a straightforward and sensible manner.
Renegotiation of the beef agreement is probably not an option. All trade
agreements face opposition by powerful domestic political interests in all
parties to the agreement, and it would set a terrible precedent if either
government, having struck a deal, didn't stick by it. There are, however, other
options to a "renegotiation". One option is to have "additional negotiations"
that can clarify, augment, and, thus, "improve" the original text so that it
meets the mutual needs and objectives of both sides. These negotiations can
take place between governments or between the private interests involved with
some sort of government "blessing" of the outcome.
Another option is to delay implementation of the agreement for a period of
time, either indefinite or fixed. Since it is now clear that neither government
is likely to move forward toward ratification of the Korea-US Free Trade
Agreement (KORUS) this year, this option provides an opportunity to "kick the
can down the road" for the next US administration to deal with. Either option
provides a cooling off period.
In either case, the Bush administration must be prepared to play a proactive
and positive role in helping deal with the crisis. Under the first option, it
must either help "broker" a deal between the two private sectors or bless the
one that they work out on their own. Under the second option, it must be
prepared to either agree jointly with the Korean government on a hiatus in the
implementation process or acquiesce publicly in a unilateral decision by the
Korean government to postpone implementation.
No one should be under any illusion that measures by the Bush administration to
address the Korean public's concerns over the beef agreement will defuse the
current crisis. There are many other factors in play here. But positive action
by the Bush administration on the beef agreement is an essential step in the
process of defusing the crisis. There is far too much at stake for Washington
to just sit on the sidelines and watch events in Seoul play out without making
an effort to play a constructive role in their resolution.
Joseph A B Winder (firstname.lastname@example.org) is past president of the
Korea Economic Institute and the president of Winder International.