What Were They Beefing about in South Korea?

Someday, this road will surely demonstrate the last days of a man who denied Republic of Korea’s state power originates from its people, but foolishly believed it comes from America, dirty richs [sic] and crap newspapers. Therefore, we will resist until our last breath to his idiotic ignorance, incompetence, irresponsible subterfuge, reckless beliefs, and ensure not to be victims of such.

— sentiment about president Lee Myung-bak on a banner strung high across the expanse of Sejong Street by Seoul City Hall

SEOUL, KOREA — Following weeks of street demonstrations, South Korea has resumed importing US beef.

On June 28, I took the subway to Seoul City Hall station where a crowd of 13,000 to 30,000 (there are a range of estimates) had gathered on the lawn and streets to express disapproval over the government’s approval of the resumption of US beef imports to the Republic of Korea (ROK or South Korea). What began with a few high school students organizing had grown to a candlelight movement that culminated in, according to some estimates, a half million people on 10 June 2008 — coinciding with the 21st anniversary of the demonstrations that toppled the military dictatorship.Chris Kerr, “South Korea: Mass movement stops the neoliberal bulldozer,” Green Left Online, 12 July 2008; “Beef protest continues with largest candlelight demonstration yet,” K-popped!, 11 June 2008.

The scene was similar to the preceding weeks: crowds of people were milling about carrying red or green placards denouncing president Lee Myung-bak and US beef. Many opportunistic entrepreneurs had set up shop on the sidewalks and streetsides, selling ramyeon, mandu, kimbab, drinks, t-shirts, candles, etc. Hundreds of police were present.

US Secretary of State Condaleeza Rice, during her visit to Seoul, vouched, “I can only say that American beef is safe and that we hope in time the South Korean people will listen to that, and will be willing to listen to what their government is saying and what we are saying.” To this a friend wryly remarked, “Why the hell would they do that? Listen, I mean.”

Alongside the city hall runs the main thoroughfare of Sedong Street, which ends at the landmark gate of Gwanghwamun. Sejong Street was lined with buses (one demonstrator claimed 160), converted to transport vehicles with barricaded windows for riot gear-clad police. The fleet of buses, many marked by graffiti, were arranged to impede access to sections of Sejong Street where the US embassy is located.

President Lee of the Grand National Party has borne the brunt of South Korean anger during a growing number of demonstrations. In April 2008, Lee proposed the lifting of prohibitions on US beef imports imposed in 2003, following an occurrence of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE or Mad Cow disease) in the US. Many South Koreans reacted strongly against the perceived risks of BSE, which had been inflamed by Korean media.

In June, the pressure was such that Lee’s entire cabinet offered to resign in response to the street protests.

Beefs against US Beef

Opposition to the resumption of US beef imports into ROK, because of scientifically dubious claims over the possibility of an outbreak of Mad Cow disease, appeared superficially to be the reason behind weeks of mass demonstrations. Most news reports and analyses have focused on the people’s movement as triggered by such health concerns. Few stories analyzed the democracy underlying the people’s movement and the direction it took.

As much as Lee has forced his will on a chunk of the recalcitrant Korean populace, on its face, the people’s movement could also be accused of being anti-democratic. First, Lee was elected by almost half the voting electorate in December 2007, albeit perhaps aided by a low turnout. Second, banning the import of US beef on specious grounds denies Korean consumers the right to inform themselves and make their own decision whether or not to purchase US beef. Why do the demonstrators not simply ask for uniform across-the-board inspection criteria for all beef, domestic and imported?

Third, the manufactured fear of Mad Cow disease was used as an ideological tool to rally the masses. Regardless of its effectiveness, it is of questionable cogency and threatens to subvert future progressivist movement building.

A Case against US Beef Imports

There were already plenty of better reasons to oppose US beef imports based on health,Andrew Martin, “Largest Recall of Ground Beef Is Ordered,” New York Times, 18 February 2008. humanitarian, and economic grounds. For instance, US beef is laced with hormones and antibiotics. The EU, for one, has long maintained a ban on hormone-injected beef.EU, US at odds over WTO beef ruling,” EurActiv.com, 2 April 2008.

People who profess concern for animal rights would deplore the cruel system of factory farming in which many cattle suffer. The final moments in the abattoir leave much to be desired as well.Janet Zimmerman, “Researcher: Cow abuse isn’t rare,” The Press-Enterprise, 26 March 2008. “Factory Farms and Beef Slaughterhouse Cruelty,” YouTube clip from movie All Jacked Up, Natural News.com.

US beef is highly subsidized.Grazing Reform,” Center for Biological Diversity, 10 July 2008. Unless ROK beef producers are correspondingly subsidized, then the pasture is stacked against them. The inability of ROK beef producers to compete with cheap US beef threatens to deprive Koreans not only of jobs and an industry, but the right to choose and consume domestic beef.

More Beefs

Much of the media has portrayed the protests as being solely about imports of US beef, but many citizens also voiced concern about the Great Canal project.help stop the Great Korea canal project,” Friends of the Earth Australia. The project proposes the construction of three great canals connecting four large rivers and the city of Busan in the southeast with Seoul in the northwest.

A slim military officer (desiring anonymity) behind an information table about the Great Canal project said he was opposed to the project because of the environmental destruction it would entail. He saw Korean conglomerates as the only winners from the project.

Pak Jong-ju, who manned a table for the Korea Socialist Party, said he was at the demonstrations because of injustice. “The US and Korea alliance is a critical issue in Korea,” said Pak, who saw the protests rooted in a great polarization in ROK society among those who support close ties with the US and those who seek independence from the US.

In general, a dichotomy is envisioned in ROK of a conservative, older faction that view relations with the US as crucial. The other faction, younger and left-leaning, wants US troops to leave. They view US involvement in Korea more skeptically.

The US has a history of undermining Korean national aspirations, from backing the diplomatic “handover” of Korea to Japan at the beginning of the twentieth century,See Carole Cameron Shaw, The Foreign Destruction of Korean Independence (Seoul National University Press, 2007). to partitioning Korea,Bruce Cumings, Korea’s Place in the Sun: A Modern History (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2005): 186. to inflaming the murderous war on the Korean peninsula,See the Korean Truth Commission, Report on U.S. Crimes in Korea: 1945-2001 (New York: 2001). and backing the South Korean puppet regime’s purging of leftists in the south of Korea.Charles J. Hanley and Jae-soon Chang, “AP IMPACT: US wavered over S. Korean executions,” Mercury News, 6 July 2008.

What Koreans Didn’t Demonstrations against

Was tens- or hundreds-of-thousands of citizens taking to the streets the best method of dissenting? Was opposition to beef imports an ideal fillip to street demonstrations, albeit this expanded to include opposition to the Grand Canal project and antipathy to the president?

Howard Rheingold, author of Smart Mobs saw the ROK street demonstrations as bringing together the power of technology, organization, and political expression and providing an opportunity “to evolve better forms of democracy that involve more people through the mediation of technology.” But Rheingold also saw a need to develop “mechanisms beyond simply calling people together to demonstrate…” “You need to be able to influence the political apparatus in a democracy in order to have a long-term influence.”From “OhmyNews International Citizen Reporters’ Forum 2008,” OhmyNews, 27 June 2008.

Did these protestors consist of “smart mobs,” in the sense meant by Rheingold?

For example, it is granted that health is primary, but what of the ability to make a decent living for all citizens? Poverty is, after all, anathema to good health.

Demonstrators did not focus on the income disparity that besets South Korea. It has the third largest gap between the rich and poor among Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries. According to the Ministry of Strategy and Finance, the gap between the top and bottom 10 percent income brackets had grown from 3.65 times in 1995 to 4.51 times in 2005.Lee Hyo-sik, “Korea’s Income Gap 3rd Largest in OECD,” Korea Times, 14 July 2008.

To the north, kinfolk are dying. A 55-year-old South Korean Buddhist monk, Pomnyun, has been fasting since 26 May to bring attention to the famine in North Korea.

“Ten million people — that amounts to the half of North Korea’s population — suffer from food shortages, and among those ten million, about 3 million people are in danger of starvation,” said Pomnyun.

When asked to evaluate the response of South Koreans to relief efforts in North Korea, Pomnyun replied: “They help when they become aware of severe famine in North Korea, but most of them do not know what is going on there. They seem to be way too busy with their own lives and are reminded of nuclear weapons programs first when it comes to North Korea.”Jeong Taesoo, “Why I Fast: An Interview with Korean Monk Pomnyun,” New America Media, 29 July 2008.

In February 2003, in a land where the people greatly suffered the ravages of war not so long ago, why did so few Koreans demonstrate against the aggression-occupation looming for Iraq?Kim Petersen, “Anti-War Demonstrations in China: Apathy in East Asia,” Dissident Voice, 20 February 2003. Moreover, the animosity stemming from the oppression of Japanese occupation is still very palpable among Koreans today. While the nature of the occupations over time has been different, paradoxically, the history of ROK occupation by the US does not evoke the same widespread animosity among South Koreans to Americans as to the Japanese. To be sure, animosity is present among a section of ROK society, but the US-ROK relationship is touted by another section of society, leading to a political polarization, which sees South Koreans living in a landscape dotted with 36 US army installations. Along with this enduring foreign presence is the fact that a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) exempts US military personnel from Korean legal jurisdiction, something that the US seeks to impose on Iraq.


Many citizens consider holding demonstrations to be a right. A senior policeman, who wished to remain anonymous said, “The demonstration is okay if it is done in the proper manner with permission, not in the middle of the street stopping cars and causing problems.”

Just who was causing the problems depends on one’s vantage point.

Rah Dong-hyuk, broadcasting jockey of Raccoon Broadcasting of Afreeca.com, said the candles were for “justice in media coverage.” The independent media cameras were at the demonstrations to protect the citizen protestors.From “OhmyNews International Citizen Reporters’ Forum 2008,” OhmyNews, 27 June 2008.

The organizers, who addressed the milling crowd throughout the evening, emphasized that the demonstration should remain peaceful. Dozens of young men wearing military fatigues were present at the demonstration. Having completed their compulsory military service, they now call themselves the Guardians of the Citizens, claiming to protect the citizenry from the state.

One of the Guardians, Kim Jin-kang, said the protestors were there “because the president has been lying … about the Great Canal and American beef.”

Hwang Pil-gyu, of the Lawyer’s Society for a Democratic Society, was quoted by Yonhap News: “Over the course of the candlelight protest movement, there have been cases of indiscriminate detention, arrest, suppression of free expression on the Internet and other abuses of human rights.”S. Korean Activists Petition UN Over Beef Protest Clampdown,” Korea Times, 14 July 2008.

The crackdown led to an “urgent appeal” to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees over state tactics, including attempts to arrest protest organizers and the issuance of travel bans on some internet users.Ibid.

On June 30, investigators raided the office of the People’s Association for Measures Against Mad Cow Disease and the office of the People’s Solidarity for Korean Progress, seizing computers and other items, as well as arresting one organizer

Following the crackdown by Korean authorities, street demonstrations have turned silent.


Since his electoral victory, Lee’s popularity crested 75% in February falling to the teens in June — maybe lower.Kerr, op. cit.

While the sustained demonstration of people’s dissatisfaction at Lee bodes well for a tipping of the top-down power structure, the basis for a revolutionary toppling of the anti-democratic power structure will come when the people’s movement is founded in solidarity for the good of all in society and across societies. It is time that Koreans (and people everywhere) start and sustain a movement calling on the liberation of Iraqis and Afghanis from violence and occupation. One place to begin is to demand the removal of one’s troops from occupation or support thereof in foreign lands.


The beef of the Korean demonstrators that clogged the streets and plaza near the city hall, unwittingly or not, was a beef against so-called free trade (since resumption of US beef imports were a condition of US negotiators) with the US along with an undercurrent of nationalism. In this case, free trade implies the freedom to subsidize and in the game of subsidization the smaller scale Korean farmers are at a distinct disadvantage. The proponents of “free trade” seldom clamor for fair trade. Does fairness not matter?

If the demonstrators had at heart authentic free and fair trade twined with demands for the dignity of labor, preservation of the environment, and the maintenance and improvement of the quality of life for all people, then the demonstrators’s idealism might have stood them in better stead.

If there is a lesson in this, it might be that a movement based on parochial self-interest is doomed to peter out.

Smarter mobs are needed. Solidarity with disadvantaged and progressivist groups is requisite. Leadership is a target for capitalists and, therefore, must be protected. This is best done by basing leadership in the entirety of the people (that is, dissolving the inegalitarian hierarchy that leadership imposes). Only then can a movement truly become mass. This is the smart way to a revolution.


A candlelight protest vigil is expected for next Tuesday when president George Bush is scheduled to arrive in Seoul.

  • Thanks to Yang Hyesun for translation and interpretation.
  • Kim Petersen is an independent writer. He can be emailed at: kimohp at gmail.com. Read other articles by Kim.

    4 comments on this article so far ...

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    1. rosemarie jackowski said on August 1st, 2008 at 10:48am #

      Good article. I feel sorry for the Korean people – more victims of capitalism.

      Everyone should Google PRION DISEASE before they have another hot dog, steak, or hamburger. Studying about prion diseases cured me. I haven’t had any beef for years.

    2. Richard Posner said on August 1st, 2008 at 4:39pm #

      “Does fairness not matter?”
      Not to fascist capitalism.
      The “smart mob” that is needed is all the nations of Earth united against the rogue state of America.

    3. Brian Koontz said on August 1st, 2008 at 5:19pm #

      “The “smart mob” that is needed is all the nations of Earth united against the rogue state of America.”

      Not the nations – the people *of* the nations. We need a global unity against capitalism, domination, terror, and oppression (which are all interrelated). A global smart mob. Destroying the American state is a good starting point.

      I suspect this smart mob has nothing in common with Chavez’s proposed unity for South America – it will emerge literally from the global citizenry.

    4. Richard Posner said on August 1st, 2008 at 6:35pm #

      And I say Viva Chavez!

      I can’t say with any certainty that the UN petition will do any good. Neither could it hurt to try.

      “There is no way to Peace. Peace is the Way.”