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South Korea Protests Target U.S. Beef, Closer Ties

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Protesters in the tens of thousands took to the streets of South Korea this week. Many waved candles, some clashed with riot police. They're angry over a pending trade deal with the U.S. that would again allow U.S. beef imports. American beef has been banned there for several years now out of fears of mad cow disease. South Korean trade officials are in Washington this week. They're hoping to reach a compromise that will calm fears back at home.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn joins us now from Seoul.

Anthony, Seoul wants guarantees that the U.S. will not export older cows, cows that might possibly being infected with mad cow disease. Even if this happens, will that cool down the protests?

ANTHONY KUHN: I think it's pretty unlikely, Michele. First of all, both the South Korean and U.S. governments are very heavily committed to this larger trade deal of which the beef issue is just a part. And they say they're not going to renegotiate it. The protesters say that if the deal is not renegotiated, many of the civic groups who were involved may try to table some sort of impeachment motion against President Lee Myung-bak. And of course this goes way beyond the beef issue itself and so the protests are likely to continue. Tomorrow, for example, is the anniversary of an incident in which some American soldiers hit and killed two Korean girls in a traffic accident and there was great public anger when they were acquitted in 2003. So there are a lot of political anniversaries coming up which are going to propel the protests forward in the weeks and days ahead.

NORRIS: So as we said, these protests and this discontent runs far deeper than just the beef issue.

KUHN: Yes, that's right. And we have to say here that I think relations with the U.S. are a subtext and a part of this. Critics of the current President Lee Myung-bak say that he has become too cozy in his relationship with Washington and the U.S. and he did come into office after all promising to rebuild that relationship. And what he has done has been a great contrast to his predecessor, Roh Moo-hyun, who thought it was in South Korea's interest to have closer ties with North Korea and with Beijing. One of the things that Roh Moo-hyun did was to rearrange the defense relationship. So come the year 2012 something called the Combined Forces Command between the U.S. military and the South Korean military will be scrapped. And if there is a war - say, for example, between North Korea and South Korea, the South will have to command its own troops. So there's a real rearranging of the strategic relationship between the U.S. and South Korea.

NORRIS: President Lee Myung-bak won election by a very large margin but he seems very unpopular now. what happened?

KUHN: It was a startlingly short honeymoon. He came to office with a 70 percent approval rating. That's now down to 20 percent. He came promising to revive the South Korean economy with deregulation of industry and with privatizing of state-run firms, but he's dealing with huge rises in prices, particularly energy prices, unemployment and the political left wing has been very effective in mobilizing its followers to attack him over this. There is generally a sense now that he's lost the public's trust within just the first 100 days of his administration.

NORRIS: Anthony, beyond the diplomacy and the civil discontent, why are these American beef imports so important?

KUHN: Well, before this ban came around in 2003, South Korea was the third largest importer of U.S. beef. U.S. cattle producing states were quite dependent on this trade. So the U.S. lawmakers from these farm states now are adamant that the trade deal, which includes the resumption of the beef trade, must go through as negotiated. They do not want to see any rollback of this agreement. Both sides have invested a lot of effort in diplomatic prestige in seeing this trade deal go forward. And even for South Korea's government, for Lee Myung-bak, it's the centerpiece of his effort to revive the South Korean economy.

NORRIS: Anthony Kuhn, thanks so much.

KUHN: Thank you, Michele.

NORRIS: That was NPR's Anthony Kuhn speaking to us from Seoul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.