Barely 100 days in power, South Korea’s new president Lee Myung-bak is already facing a dramatic crisis. His conservative Grand National Party was badly defeated in regional elections on Wednesday and students have taken to the streets to protest his decision to import American beef.
South Korea and Japan banned US beef imports in 2003 after BSE was detected
When the conservative President Lee Myung-bak was voted to power with a large majority -- in parliament too -- South Korean voters were obviously looking for political change after two terms of the centre-left. But they were also seeking economic change.
The conservatives promised to boost economic growth again to 6 percent -- this has not happened yet. Instead, President Lee Myung-bak has made one mistake after another, explained Werner Kamppeter, the Korea representative for Germany’s Friedrich Ebert Foundation, saying he “nominated people who were associated to the last military ruler as his advisors and this made a dent” in his initial popularity.
Another thing that is considered a mistake is his decision to restart importing beef from the United States. Like Japan, South Korea banned imports of US beef after the cattle disease BSE was detected in 2003. Many Koreans fear that US beef is still not safe.
Decreasing health standards
Werner Kamppeter understands these concerns because US standards have gone down over the years: “They test only one in 100,000 animals for BSE and nevertheless they claim they have no problems. They continue to feed cattle parts of animals that cannot be used commercially.”
Demonstrations against the president’s decision to restart imports were first started by high-school students. “Korean students go to school all day long and they have lunch at school,” explained Kamppeter. “So their argument was: Nobody else is going to eat that American beef, we are going to be the ones who are served the American beef. And that they didn’t want.”
Meanwhile, the rest of the population has joined the students in mass demonstrations, forcing the government to postpone beef imports for the time being.
Increasingly low popularity ratings
Nonetheless, the president’s approval rates are at an all-time low of 20%. The only comfort for him is that it doesn’t seem as if the opposition parties have benefitted from his increasing unpopularity -- rather, there is a growing disillusion with politicians in general.
The protest demonstrations have been peaceful on the student’s side. For their part, the riot police have used water cannons.
Kamppeter explained the police had become more careful in Korea because the students use advanced technology: “They use their camcorders, connect them to their hand-phones and transmit everything to the internet. And you have more than 2,000 live films on the internet. You have situations when soldiers who become violent have their pictures taken and somewhere in the country, people identify them. Within a few hours, their names are on the internet, they will be shamed publicly.”
The president seems to be in real trouble. He had to cancel a traditional address to parliament on Thursday after the opposition announced a boycott. If he wants to survive, the new president Lee Myung-bak will quickly have to find a way to change course without losing too much face.