The new right wing government of President Lee Myung-bak in south Korea has forced through a move to allow the United States to export beef to the country, but in the process has sparked a massive political crisis and severely compromised its credibility. South Korea had imposed a ban on the import of American beef in 2003, when mad cow disease was first detected in the United States. South Korea had been the third largest market for US beef.
Lee Myung-bak won the presidential election in December 2007 and took office in February. His election was warmly welcomed by Washington, where the Bush administration had made no secret of its distaste for his two predecessors, who had championed reconciliation and reunification with the socialist Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), drawn closer to China and also made concessions to working people.
By way of drawing a line under such policies, Lee’s first overseas visits as president were to Japan, Korea’s former colonial oppressor, and the United States. As if to underline his gratitude to Bush for receiving him at Camp David, in mid-April Lee announced that south Korea would lift the five year old beef ban.
Correctly identifying this move as merely a symptom of the regime’s pro-American, anti-national and neo-liberal policies, this set off a massive wave of protests among all sections of south Korean society, with the working class in the vanguard, leading in turn to a major political crisis in the country. Weeks of daily anti-government protests climaxed on 10 June, with massive rallies in the capital Seoul and around the country, representing the largest protests in the country since those of 10 June 1987, exactly 21 years previously, which were a decisive turning point in the struggle to end military dictatorship in south Korea. On 10 June 2008, some one million people took part in protests around the country, including a massive demonstration of 500,000 people in Seoul.
Earlier, on 31 May, hundreds of thousands of people had taken part in candlelight rallies in more than 100 cities across the country. The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), a militant class struggle body, described the protests that day: “Protesters waved candles, sang songs and called for the agreement to be repealed and renegotiated. The people who gathered in the centre of Seoul…marched to the Blue [presidential] House…after the candlelight rally to make their voices heard in a peaceful manner.
“However, the government responded to the protesting citizens with brutal violence by the riot police using shields and billies [long truncheons]. Many protestors were arrested during the peaceful march. A total of 228 protestors were arrested on that day, among them, only three people were released by the end of 1 June. And around 60 protestors were wounded by the riot police.”
Clearly the brutal response to the 31 May protests served only to rouse the masses to an even more massive and determined protest on 10 June. Following this, the entire cabinet offered to resign, Lee replaced nine of his 10 senior presidential aides in a bid to repair his image, and offered a hypocritical “apology” to the public.
While insisting that the beef ban would still be lifted, Lee despatched aides to the USA to plead for concessions in order to prop up his rapidly declining political position. When US negotiators sought to hang tough, the south Koreans produced aerial photographs of the massive Seoul protests to illustrate their predicament.
Whereas the April agreement would have allowed the US to ship beef from all cattle, the renegotiated deal limits exports to beef from cattle less than 30 months old, who are believed to be less susceptible to mad cow disease.
However this concession has done nothing to appease the people’s anger. As the KCTU points out, in reaching the import deal with the USA, the government had gravely compromised its own sovereignty by agreeing to scrap nearly all quarantine and inspection restrictions, going considerably beyond even what would be required under World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules. Besides, limited imports of beef from cattle aged under 30 months had been resumed in south Korea last year, but were rapidly halted when banned items such as bones and bone fragments were found in some shipments.
And the people’s struggle had in any case already escalated beyond the question of beef imports, taking on the government’s whole reactionary agenda at home and abroad. Amongst the first groups of workers to come out on strike have been long distance lorry drivers, construction and auto workers. Their grievances include the government’s plans for privatisation and attacks on pensions and they are also demanding the introduction of a minimum wage.
The lorry drivers’ dispute centres on the increases in fuel prices and has virtually halted unloading and transportation from the country’s massive container ports.
Other issues raised by the protestors include the government’s confrontational approach to the DPRK and its slowing of inter-Korean cooperation projects, cronyism in presidential appointments, and the government’s moves to promote a “flexible labour market”, that is attacks on employment rights, and to open the door wider to foreign investment and push through Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) with the USA and the European Union against the national interest and the rights and wellbeing of the working class.
The KCTU has called a one day general strike for 2 July, in which workers in health care and financial services, as well as at Hyundai Motors, one of the biggest constituent unions under the KCTU, are due to join those workers already out. Further strikes by individual KCTU member unions on a rolling basis are planned for after 2 July.
Lee’s approval ratings, which were over 50 per cent when he took office, have now plunged below 20 per cent. Inflation has hit a seven year high and his goal of six per cent annual growth is now generally considered to be unattainable.
He has also been hit in the ballot box. Three opposition parties have been boycotting parliament since 30 May. In stark contrast to its election landslide late last year, Lee’s Grand National Party (GNP) won just 10 of 52 seats contested in local polls at the beginning of June.
On 24 June, the White House announced that George W Bush had cancelled his planned visit to south Korea, no doubt panicked by the eruption of popular fury it would surely provoke. He had been due to travel on to Seoul following the G8 summit to be held in Japan in early July.
In the words of the KCTU: “The government of south Korea has to recognise that it has lost the people’s confidence.”