Friday, May 09, 2008

Beef fiasco

There's been huge protest against the Korean government's decision to resume importing American beef. Thousands of people have been holding candlelight vigils across the country, asking the government to withdraw the agreement with the U.S., which was reached just in time when the Korean president was on his first trip to the U.S.

People may be overly concerned about American beef and mad cow disease, but their fears are ligitimate, since their health is at stake. But public health is probably the last thing politicians care about at the moment. The pro-business, pro-American president must have wanted to get the beef issue out of his way so he can move on and talk with the U.S. about ratifying the FTA as quickly as possible.

Indeed, the FTA was all he talked about during his trip to the U.S. And the news of the beef agreement, which was signed in Seoul, was privately broken to the president first when he was in the U.S., even before the negotiations offcially wrapped up and before any of the Korean media got hold of it. A reporter who followed the president at the time in Washington said the president and the Korean delegates drew a cheer from the American crowd while relaying the news, and put an embargo on the news.

The ruling party is blindly supporing the president, although they were the ones who opposed the resumption of American beef imports when the previous government was under pressure from the U.S. Back then, they said bringing in American beef could seriously jeopardize public health, but it has become clear now that all they wanted was just to bash the then leftist president and administration, because that's the way Korean politics works - all that matters is which party you belong to, no matter what ideas and values your party represents, and flipping sides isn't that big of a deal.

The current opposition parties are just doing that. Are they criticizing the government because they worry about people? Some may do, but I doubt that's the sole motive. They are attacking the government because they are on the opposition side, and they've been taking advantage of the deteorating public sentiment against the government amid mounting fears of mad cow disease.

Talking about people's fears of American beef, there's another side to this issue. Such fears are valid to some extent, but the problem is that the fears in large part were created by groundless and non-scientific hearsay about the danger of American beef that the Korean media spread. And the result is near paranoia about eating American beef.

This is a classic case of how statistics and scientific studies can fool you. One example: a broadcast station aired a documentary, saying how dangerous it is to eat American beef, especially for Koreans. It cited some statistics showing all of the British people who got mad cow disease had a certain type of genes, which 90-something percent of Koreans have. Therefore, Koreans are more likely to get mad cow disease than any other races. In response, the government claims, backed up by some doctors and health experts, that just because those Brits and Koreans have the genes, it doesn't mean Koreans will get mad cow disease more easily.

At this point, the truth doesn't matter to them any more. What matters to them is spotting flaws in each other's argument, and win the debate, using all those stats and obscure studies. And while they are at it, the public is out there on the streets, begging to be part of the game.

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