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☞ Issue 109
글씨크기 크게 글씨크기 작게 기사 메일전송 기사 출력
Lee and US Beef: The Road Less Traveled

Why people are worried about the president's poor leadership

Lee Byong-chul (2008/05/13 23:44)  

No South Korean president has ever faced criticism from his people and scattered divisions within his own party in so few months after a government started. When President Lee Myung-bak held summit talks with US President George W. Bush at Camp David, he would not have imagined that the issue of US beef could almost paralyze the nation and drive his "bulldozer leadership" into a crisis.

In short, the newly loosened quarantine regulations over the import of US beef has become a lightning rod of the Lee government that has been given to far less persuasive spinning that even numerous ethnic Koreans in the United States enjoy eating US beef than the opponents' pinpointed logic that South Korean government dashed to end the beef deal with the United States in consideration of the planned summit talks at Camp David.

Although the government's frustration over some of the media's lopsided criticism is understandable, I find it difficult to believe that the fears of mad cow disease are "baloney."

As a result, President Lee's approval rating plummeted, dropping to less than 30 percent. Barraged with criticism from within the governing Grand National Party, President Lee was forced to draw a line to possibly stop importing US beef in case of an outbreak of mad cow disease despite of the trade friction with the US.

His strikingly low popularity was clearly a contrast to what he gained in the vote ratio of 48.7 percent in December's presidential election by the largest margin of 5.3 millions ever. From the perspective of the moderate conservative factions, thus, it must be "unbearable" to watch the pragmatic center-of-the-right-wing government foundering helplessly.

They consider that the seeds of anti-US beef are nurtured by the left-wing factions that vehemently oppose the Korea-US free trade agreement per se. On the contrary, the liberals have long argued that South Korea is the poster child for the globalization trend, where the US continues to grab the world economy to ensconce itself in power. The Roh Moo-hyun government had also been targeted by the liberals-led campaigns of criticism.

It goes without saying, however, that the government's announcement to permit to import over-30-month-old US beef that has highly possible risk elements of mad cow disease tarnished severely the image of the former mayor of the metropolitan Seoul, in particular amid the cattish gossips over the disease.

There seems no finish line regarding mad cow disease for the time being, since the opposition parties and liberal civic groups will use their strong posture against the controversial mad cow disease to force President Lee that his government should not abandon convictions about the food safety of the people to negotiate with the US again -- even though there is no less than a 1 percent chance of dealing with the US.

One of the reasons that the opposition parties are resolved to keep fighting is resentment against the government full of the officials talking languages one can't understand. On that issue, the opposition parties have a stronger point in that from the beginning, the government and the ruling party alike failed to provide the people with any kind of persuasive information and materials concerned. Their fence sitting, at the initial period of the controversy, is therefore to blame for it, given that mad cow disease is the matter of the future, not of today.

In every battle or negotiation, there is a winner and a loser. Yet if the chaos over the controversial US beef imports continues to spread quickly in a politically calculated and provocative manner prior to making an in-depth research and discussions on the disease, it will certainly complicate the nation. In that case, there is nothing to gain and much to lose.

That said, both the government and the opposition parties might be remembered as the losers of the game led by the US, unless they strengthen the infrastructure such as the laws and rules concerning the food safety net system to avoid conflicts of interest. Such conflicts should be better policed. Regardless of the tensions that overshadow the future of the battered Lee government, there is no question that the US stands to benefit from some kind of a deal in terms of national interest.

The decision to import US beef on a large scale regardless of the age of the cattle already became a strongly populist policy of polarizing the nation. In a sense, it was a boon to the left-wing factions that are worried that they might lose their political bases. In other words, US beef imports have become a good political prey for the opponents that have successfully positioned the disease as flu like the Avian Influenza being rampant here in Korea.

That decision turned out to be a recipe for political crisis in that the government did not take it seriously that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. With Lee's approval ratings thus gone into a nosedive, the Lee government doesn't have a plausible route to the pragmatic policies. Further, the government failed to effectively capitalize on the Internet to attract the positive aspects of the US beef imports, not to mention the FTA. Instead, the Internet served as a graveyard for the Lee government's poor public relations.

Under pressure from significant numbers of housewives and young students taking to the downtown street every night to demonstrate against the government's inconsiderate response to the safety problems, after all, the government hastily declared that it would ban US beef immediately in the event that mad cow disease occurs in the US. Delighted with their success in exploiting the danger of mad cow disease, nevertheless, the opposition parties are likely to continue to take their offensive with the government in order to galvanize dissenting voices of echoing the danger.

Yet the ruling party charges that that is plain hokum and an old political trick, while seeing it as an act of hypocrisy. Apparently, they are worried about whether US beef imports will serve as the anti-American symbol of the fate of the alliance. But I find it urgent how the government formulates, strategizes, and communicates its comprehensive food safety systems.

There is one road ahead, the one less traveled. People are on the threshold of entering the uncertain road. The people's impressions of the road are a very complicated tapestry woven by a variety of artists. It is thus only natural that people on the street feel much afraid of the new course and some of them strongly refuse to take a walk on it.

If the leader believes that road is the way where we should all take part, he should have persuaded the people to join him by explaining the inevitability and imperative of the deal in a more proactive manner at the risk of the fate of the regime. The leadership is a power to capture the hearts and minds of the people in despair.
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