South Korea commit to US beef despite protests

Posted by Daniel Palmer on 30th May 2008

South Korea’s Agriculture Minister, Chung Woon Chun, has told a Korean television audience that the market for US beef will officially open next week. The minister sent a request to the Ministry of Administration to print the final protocol yesterday and this is usually a two to three day process.

The issue of US beef imports has caused heated debate in South Korea with protests a common occurrence in the wake of the initial announcement back in April.

South Korea banned US beef imports in 2003 following a discovery of mad cow disease in the state of Washington, and the public uproar is in response to worries about the safety of the imports. The decision has sent Lee Myung-bak’s, the recently elected President of South Korea, popularity plummeting.

Opponents of US beef, including the main opposition parties and the Korean Federation of Trade Unions, have vowed to take “every possible measure” as they continue their campaign to derail the agreement. More than 7,000 people took part in the latest vigil after the minister’s announcement, and the leader of the United Democratic Party, Sohn Hak-kyu, has claimed other drastic action may need to be taken to stop the imports. “If the government and the ruling party ignore this warning, we will be forced to come up with a critical decision,” he reportedly told a Korean news agency.

The US Meat and Export Federation (USMEF) disputes the food safety concerns, claiming that US beef is of high quality. “We look forward to supplying high-quality, wholesome US beef to South Korea, but this is a volatile situation that changes day by day,” said Philip Seng, CEO and President of USMEF. “We are monitoring events in Korea very closely. We were the preferred supplier of beef for Korean cuisine. Our exports are complementary to the South Korean domestic industry. We understand the products and specifications needed.”

After reaching agreement with the United States in principle on May 15, South Korea sent inspection teams to audit US beef plants on the list of plants approved to export beef to Korea prior to the suspension of trade. “The US industry wants to win back the trust of South Korean consumers,” said Seng. “US beef exports are accepted by Japan, Singapore, Taiwan, Mexico and the European Union.”

“We trust that the facts and sound science will win over Korean public opinion. US beef is safe,” he declared.