Thursday, June 12, 2008

Korean Beef Crisis: Hoist by their Own Petard

{Dork alert: Current events post.}

If you've been following international news lately, you may have heard about the massive (and that's not really an overstatement) upheaval over the new Korean president's plan to lift South Korea's ban on US beef. Over the last week-plus, downtown Seoul has seen several major protests, mostly in the vicinity of the Blue House (the South Korean President's residence) and outside the US Embassy. (Further evidence that God cares for fools: we were supposed to go down to the embassy for a function on Saturday, but flaked out--and managed to avoid some heated protests.)

You can find details from the NYT here. (And yes, as far as I can tell, it's accurate.)

Though the protests so far have been fairly well-contained, the situation as a whole is a complete farce, and entirely the product of longstanding (but short-sighted) South Korean policy. The underlying problem is the current economic slump in the ROK. Traditionally, the ROK has treated economic slumps with heavy doses of protectionism, which had the added benefit for government officials of providing massive kickbacks and monopolies to powerful friends. In doing so, the ROK developed an arsenal of PR weapons that used protectionism and outright xenophobia to blast any attempts at free trade--and first and foremost among these weapons was mass hysteria over the threat of foreign (and specifically American) beef, based in part on the hypothesis that Koreans, having larger-than-average brains, were especially susceptible to mad cow disease. Fast forward to 2008, when the government tries to do an about-face on decades of protectionism: by now, the protectionist panacea for economic troubles, spearheaded by mad cow hysteria, have become so firmly rooted in the public mind that the mere announcement of plans to lift a ban on US beef--months after the World Organization for Animal Health finally branded US beef safe for export--has touched off protests large enough to topple Lee Myung-bak's ruling coalition. (Though it looks like he'll emerge from the storm with a slightly different supporting cast.)

Now--why should we care (aside from the fact that this illustrates the continuing influence of xenophobia and anti-American sentiment in the ROK)? Lee Myung-bak was the golden hope for reformers in the Korean education system, a conservative who wanted to increase school autonomy and student choice. Hopefully this current crisis doesn't mean that education reform has been completely derailed, because let me tell you, the Korean is in dire need of reform.

1 comment:

Colin said...

That was a very informative and mooooving post can't wait to see youi guys soon!