Protesters held anti-FTA banners as security guards tried to block them during a rally Friday in front of the Coex Convention Center in Seoul, where U.S. import beef was being sampled. One of the signs above reads "Nullify FTA between South Korea and the U.S."
Korean beef eaters raise stakes on U.S.
Concerns about mad cow disease in U.S. meat cools the market
SEOUL » Where's the beef?
It's here, on restaurant plates and sizzling on open-air grills in the sprawling Namdaemun Market.
It's just not American.
While the United States once was the source of two-thirds of South Korea's beef imports, most nondomestic cuts now come from Australia. The reason: fears of mad cow disease.
That might come as a surprise to most Americans, who worry not a bit about mad cow or any other disease as they down their Memorial Day steaks and burgers.
But beef has become a high-stakes clash of standards and sensibilities as U.S. and South Korea legislators weigh the pros and cons of a comprehensive free trade agreement.
On Thursday, President Bush cited the agreement with Seoul as one of the goals he aims to achieve before he leaves the White House in January 2009.
As with the war in Iraq, however, the matter might be out of his hands. The tentative pact, signed April 1, faces considerable opposition on Capitol Hill and has stirred mass protests in South Korea.
The draft text, made public Thursday, addresses trade barriers across a wide spectrum of industries, including automobiles, textiles, pharmaceuticals and farm products.
One of the most glaring imbalances: The United States imported more than 700,000 cars from South Korea last year but exported only 4,000, according to the Yonhap News Agency.
Reactions to the pact have been mixed from industry advisory committees, particularly on labor and autos.
"Both sides are dissatisfied with the FTA," says Tami Overby, president and chief executive officer of the American Chamber of Commerce in Korea. "That means both sides compromised."
Beef is not covered by the FTA, but influential congressmen have vowed to vote it down unless South Korea resumes U.S. beef imports.
Seoul might do so on the strength of a report last week from the Paris-based World Organization for Animal Health. The agency ruled that with proper precautions U.S. beef is safe from mad cow disease, formally known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy.
U.S. beef shipments to South Korea, once worth $850 million a year, were cut off abruptly in 2003 with the discovery of a case of mad cow disease in Washington state.
Last year, Seoul agreed to admit beef without bones from cattle less than 30 months old, then turned back three shipments that contained bone chips.
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns complained pointedly that the rejection, based on fragments "the size of one-half of a grain of rice," was not based on science.
SUSPECTED to arise from contaminated feed, bovine spongiform encephalopathy makes the brains of cattle resemble sponges. It is relatively rare but has raised concerns because of a possible link to a similar disease in humans, a variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob syndrome.
The appearance of that variant in England and France has led to concern that it could be transmitted to humans through the consumption of beef. Lab tests show that similar proteins cause both the bovine and human diseases, but no definitive link has been established, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
"American beef is as safe as it is delicious, and is consumed by millions of Korean visitors to the U.S. each year," U.S. Ambassador Alexander Vershbow said in a speech here May 15. He added that discussions with U.S. lawmakers have convinced him that prospects for the FTA's ratification in Congress are "wrapped up" in the reopening of the beef market.
The FTA, due to be signed June 30 in Washington, would be the biggest trade pact since the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement. The draft released last week does not include provisions on labor rights, environmental protection and other areas laid out in a May 10 agreement between the administration and Democrats in Congress.
Jim Borg, an assistant city editor at the Star-Bulletin, recently took part in the 2007 Korea-United States Journalism Exchange sponsored by the East-West Center.