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☞ Issue 114
글씨크기 크게 글씨크기 작게 기사 메일전송 기사 출력
Presidential apology falls short

Donald Kirk (2008/06/29 23:09)  

South Korea's besieged President Lee Myung-bak is fighting back from the brink of disaster for his four-month-old government with another apology to his people, coupled with a steep climb-down from programs that he thought he could ram through with impunity when he was inaugurated in February after a landslide victory in December.

Lee put on his best show of contrition on Thursday in a nationwide television address in which he promised to obtain a "firm guarantee" that the United States would not export beef from cattle more than 30 months old to South Korea and said he was "very sorry" indeed for misjudging the mood of the nation.

Lee obviously is counting on his latest apology - one couched in language seen as significantly more convincing than his first "apology" four weeks ago - to soften the wrath of protesters who promise another round of huge demonstrations in the next day or two if they are not happy with his response.

He will need, however, a modicum of support from US President George W Bush and US Trade Representative Susan Schwab, who has been locked for five days in Washington in what her spokeswoman calls "sensitive" discussions with South Korea's Trade Minister Kim Jong-hoon.

The US has placed top priority on opening South Korea to US beef exports for the first time since they were banned after the discovery of "mad cow" disease in a single cow nearly five years ago and has warned repeatedly that the US Congress will never pass the South Korea-US free-trade agreement (FTA) without a deal on beef.

Lee strongly implied that US pressure had led him not to miss what had appeared as a "golden opportunity" to come to terms on beef before flying to Washington in April for a summit with Bush at Camp David.

US officials - and the American Chamber of Commerce in Korea - seem unable to deal with the reality that the whole agreement just isn't going to work without a compromise that may not be enough for members of the US Congress already critical of the FTA worked out in nearly a year-and-a-half of difficult talks between Korean and American negotiators.

The chamber in particular has been fighting hard, often in emotional terms, for the FTA. It has left no doubt that it sees the agreement as critical for the success of US commerce in South Korea, despite the opposition of broad sectors of US industry, notably motor vehicle manufacturers, as well as Senator Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic party presidential nominee.

Lee has also placed high priority on the FTA, which needs the approval of South Korea's National Assembly. Members of the main opposition party, eager for revenge for the drubbing he gave their candidate in December's presidential polls, have boycotted assembly sessions during the protests against beef imports but may return to vote on the deal if the US can accede to demands not to export beef from cattle more than 30 months old.

A sign of Lee's desperation, after six weeks of demonstrations, was that he backed down on one of his pet projects, the construction of an enormous canal linking the Han River in northwestern South Korea with the Naktong River in the southeast. He sees the canal as a vast link between the industrial region of Seoul and Incheon, South Korea's second-largest port, and the equally important industrial region surrounding Pusan, the largest port.

Yes, "construction of a Pan-Korea grand waterway was part of my presidential election," he said, "but I'm ready to give up the project if it is opposed by the people." He had come to realize, he said, "that any government policy, if not supported by the people, would not be successful."

Indeed, Lee went on, responding to another point of bitter protest, his hope of privatizing public enterprises, he would only carry out that plan after weighing the views of members of the public. Privatization has come under severe criticism from consumers fearful of huge increases in the costs of public utilities as well as massive loss of jobs from money-hungry big business interests.

That said, however, Lee avoided announcing widely expected appointments of new cabinet ministers or a massive overhaul of the staff of the Blue House, the center of presidential power in Seoul. Members of the cabinet, including Prime Minister Han Seung-soo, have all tendered their resignations, and Lee is still expected to make changes, but he also appeared to want to reconcile differences within his own conservative Grand National Party.

At the same time, Lee clearly was as anxious as ever to promote the FTA, warning that outright refusal of US beef would mean the FTA had no chance of passage by the US Congress. The FTA has encountered strong opposition from South Korean activists, including leftist leaders of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, who see a flood of US imports as jeopardizing the livelihoods of factory workers and farmers.

Lee in his remarks on Thursday did not question the scientific basis for objections to beef from older cattle, even though US officials have said it is routinely sold in the US and would not pose a health problem for South Koreans.

Instead, in an attempt at complete reconciliation with the protesters, he said that he and his government "should have looked at what the people want regarding food safety more carefully". Having "failed to do so", he said, we "now seriously reflect on the failure".

Lee made clear there was no way his government could negotiate an entirely new deal on beef with the US but promised that US beef from cattle more than 30 months old would "never be offered to Korean consumers" if the people simply did not want it. Lee hinted at the potential impact of the beef crisis on the US-South Korean alliance, remarking that he expected the US "as an ally of South Korea, to respect the will of the South Korean people".

Lee put the spotlight directly on Bush to present the FTA to the US Congress and to work to get it passed, saying that Bush had promised ratification before he stepped down as president next January. In the face of rising criticism of the FTA by members of the Democratic party, the majority in the US Congress, Lee said he still expected the FTA "to be finally ratified during Bush's term".

The extent to which the US will go along with the 30-month ban, however, is uncertain. A proposal for "voluntary restraints" by US exporters does not seem to have been received with enthusiasm by Schwab. Another proposal calls for labels on the age of the cattle when they were slaughtered, under which South Korea would have the right not to accept beef from cattle more than 30 months old.

Opposition by labor leaders in South Korea to the FTA is mirrored by that of the essentially conservative American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations in the US, which sees the deal as having an equally devastating impact on American workers at a time of rising unemployment and skyrocketing prices.
Journalist Donald Kirk has been covering Korea - and the confrontation of forces in Northeast Asia - for more than 30 years.
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