In South Korea, thousands of striking construction workers went back to work on Wednesday after accepting a fresh government package. A rare piece of good news for President Lee Myung-bak who has been facing massive popular resistance – not only against his economic reforms that are considered pro-business, but also against his decision to resume importing beef from the United States. Lee Myung-bak is widely expected to publicly apologize for the beef deal later this week and to announce a cabinet reshuffle to mark a new beginning.
Lee Myung-Bak took office as the President in Feb. 2008
Hundreds of thousands of South Koreans have participated in almost nightly candlelight vigils in downtown Seoul and in many other parts of the country since President Lee announced the embargo on American beef would be scrapped. It has been in place since 2003 when some cows in Canada and the United States contracted BSE, commonly known as mad cow disease.
Protestors such as 38-year old Noh Kiho say that President Lee’s pro-American policies will kill Koreans. “The government has sold our personal rights to the United States for beef, that’s our right to public health", he says.
The rallies have been spurred on by sensational media reports that South Korean schoolchildren will be served unsafe meat and that Koreans are genetically more susceptible to contracting made cow disease than Westerners.
Lee’s late response
With less than four months in office, President Lee Myung Bak has promised to make a fresh start with the public. The reshuffling of his cabinet is seen as a necessary sacrifice to calm the nationwide unrest. However, it is not clear at the moment how many resignations the president will accept.
But Kang Won-taek, professor of Politics and Diplomacy at Soongsil University in Seoul, says the move may already have come too late Lee has already lost the confidence of the voters: “This is the first reaction that Lee Myung Bak has made after 48 days of protest. I think they are the least responsive government since democratization in South Korea. So, poor performance, poor response and poor management of the Lee Myung Bak government actually elevated these protests.”
As the public’s anger has increased, the protests have become about a lot more than just beef. Many South Koreans say that Lee, a former business leader, is still acting like an authoritarian CEO and not like a democratically-elected head of state.
Little progress at talks
Seoul dispatched a delegation to Washington this week to resolve the beef row. But so far, talks have made little progress.
Chae Jin, director of the Institute of Presidential Leadership, says that even if the beef deal is renegotiated, it may not solve Lee’s problems. ”Renegotiation is important, but the government needs to convince people that it is doing the right thing.”
There are signs that some South Koreans are growing weary of the mass anti-president demonstrations. A few hundred demonstrators, mostly in their fifties or older, recently held a rally in Seoul in support of their leader. Sixty-four-year-old Yoon Ung Oh believes the anti-Lee Myung Bak protests are being manipulated by the president’s political enemies. “President Lee Myung Bak is making some mistakes, but how can we oppose him just a short time after he was elected. People should give more support to the president.”
Adding to President Lee’s problems this week is a nationwide strike by members of a truckers union. They want the government to help alleviate high fuel prices. And also, the militant Korean Confederation of Trade Unions is threatening to hold a massive work stoppage next month in protest against American beef imports.