Just ahead of the lunar New Year holiday, South Korean supermarkets are stocking their shelves with packs of American beef. Only several months ago, the nation was thrown into chaos when President Lee Myung Bak lifted the ban on imports that was originally imposed over fears of mad cow disease. Tough economic times have a lot to do with why many Koreans have once again embraced the idea of eating US meat.
Protests against American beef during President Bush's visit to Seoul in August
Customers queue up at the A-Meat butcher shop to buy steaks for their dinners. Diagrams of cows hang on the walls, showing exactly where each cut of beef comes from. A-Meat only sells imports from the United States, and since the ban on American beef was lifted last summer, managers here say business is doing great.
And shoppers, like forty-seven year old Jin Soon Seong, say they’re saving money. "American meat is cheaper than other types," says Jin. "And there’s no difference in the taste." For example, a cut of Korean tenderloin can cost as much as three times that of its American equivalent.
Back to number one
Supermarkets around Korea are selling special box sets of US steak for the upcoming Lunar New Year holiday. American beef is once again the nation’s number one imported meat.
That might seem hard to believe considering all the problems lifting the embargo caused last summer. Protestors clashed with riot police in the streets of Seoul. Political opponents of president Lee Myung Bak boycotted the parliament, virtually shutting down the government.
Spurred on by internet rumours and sensational reports from left-leaning media, demonstrators accused the government of importing beef that was tainted with mad cow disease.
No more questions
But by September, the rallies came to an end and life in Korea got back to normal. The butcher at A-Meat says these days, nobody seems worried about the safety of American beef. She says not that many people have questions about the meat, some ask how it tastes, but no one asks if it has mad cow disease.
American beef has even won over former skeptics like an 18-year-old high school student, who doesn’t want to give his name. He is buying several kilos of brisket.
He says that he used to be worried that he’d catch mad cow disease by eating American beef from cows older than 30 months. But he thinks its safe now thanks to tougher inspections. He adds that he wanted to join his friends last summer during the protests, but his school forbade students from participating.
Even though protests against beef imports are a thing of the past, some like veteran journalist Shim Jae Hoon say they have tarnished Korea’s reputation:
"Korea is basically a trading nation, we derive much of our, at least a third of our gross national income from exports", he points out. "By boycotting American beef and rice we have demonstrated to the rest of the world that we are only interested in selling our products and not buying from others."
But President Lee’s troubles aren’t over yet. In late December, violence broke out in the halls of the National Assembly. Opposition lawmakers fought with members of the governing party in the hope of blocking the passage of a free trade agreement with the United States that the president endorses.
Their siege of the Parliament came to an end a few days ago, with the bill being shelved until later this year.