Seoul food: From mad cows to madder N. Koreans who might kill for any kind of beef

Special to

By Donald Kirk,

SEOUL — The sequence is simple:

One more sick American cow, and the government here is in big trouble.

The government here gets into trouble, and the North Korean regime can exploit the differences and make good on its dire threats, e.g., the one about “special actions” lasting “three or four minutes”. Has the possibility of a terrible illness befalling a single member of the bovine family ever carried such calamitous implications for the future of a region, any region?

North Korean women attend a women's "Revenge Rally" against South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak and his regime on April 23. The sign at top right reads: "Let's start (a) nationwide holy war to sweep away rat-like Lee Myung-Bak and his group!" /Reuters/KCNA

As of now, one U.S. cow is down with bovine spongiform encephalopathy, that is BSE, Mad Cow disease, and demonstrators are already hitting the streets, holding little candles in paper cups, denouncing President Lee Myung-Bak, the Free Trade Agreement with the U.S., the construction of a South Korean Navy base on Jeju. You name it.

None of that stuff, however, compares with mad cow disease in the horrors the protesters would love to conjure among ordinary Koreans — and the fears it engenders among adherents to the conservative government as they face a bruising campaign for election of a successor to Lee in December.

Lee’s foes, members of the leading opposition Democratic United Party, haven’t found such a great issue to pick on since they failed to rally a majority of voters around all those other causes in last month’s National Assembly elections. Although the opposition did make inroads, it turned out not all that many people really were all that upset about a free trade agreement that had, after all, been negotiated under Lee’s liberal predecessor, the late Roh Moo-Hyun.

Critics of the government may well convince people that Lee is responsible for the widening rich-poor gap by removing regulations on the chaebol, the conglomerates that dominate the economic life of the country. They can say he has no understanding of the suffering of the poor or even the shrinking middle class.

And they love it when his relatives and cronies find themselves in deep trouble over charges of rampant corruption and conflict of interest — the kind of stuff that seems to engulf every Korean president in the last year of his term.

None of that, however, compares with the possibilities for invoking the horrors of Mad Cow disease — and memories of the mass protests that surged through central Seoul in the summer and fall of 2008 after a local TV network broadcast phony reports of a Mad Cow in the U.S.

In that long hot summer, politicos and negotiators were at each other’s throats for months before the demos petered out and U.S. beef, banned for several years after a previous discovery of a Mad Cow, re-entered Korean markets.

I personally had not witnessed such demos here since the summer and autumn of 2002 when protesters hit the streets for a far more moving reason — the killing of two 13-year-old schoolgirls run down by a 48-ton U.S. Army vehicle coming back from war games on a narrow road north of Seoul.

The latest round of protests here so far have been quite minor. A few hundred people by the Gwanghwamun crossing in central Seoul, shrieking speeches by protest leaders, singing and chanting and shouting, sporadic pushing and shoving — nothing the thousands of policemen surrounding them, backed up into nearby streets, waiting in rows of buses, were unable to handle.

The election, though, is months away. So far we’re not even sure who’s running on the conservative Saenuri ticket — though Park Geun-Hye, daughter of the long-ruling Park Chung-Hee, assassinated by his intelligence chief in 1979, appears as the likely candidate.

As for the Democratic United Party, the populist professor Ahn Cheol-soo has yet to climb down from his pinnacle of independence — though his fans may draw him into the fray on behalf of the party as tensions heat up.

That’s exactly where another Mad Cow enters the picture. The government is now doing all possible to tamp down the menace — not of the disease but of its exploitation by its enemies.

Rather than cut back on U.S. beef imports, they’ve sent a team of investigators to look into what befell that single unfortunate beast, the first diagnosed with BSE in the United States in six years. They’ve accepted assurances from the Americans that this case was extremely unusual, almost unique — and not from cannibalizing ground-up cattle bones and brains held responsible for cases in England a decade ago in which the disease mutated to human beef-eaters with protractedly deadly results.

So doing, the Lee government faces a dilemma. The free trade agreement with the U.S. has just gone into effect. Although the promise of reopening the Korean market to U.S. beef was not part of the deal, the U.S. Senate would not have approved it as long as the Korean market was closed. South Korea is now the fourth-biggest overseas market for U.S. beef — or was until a couple of major chains suspended sales of U.S. beef during the latest scare.

The symbolic importance of U.S. beef was in evidence at a luncheon staged by the American Chamber of Commerce. U.S. beef was the main course as the new U.S. ambassador, Sung Kim, a Korean-American who’s visited Pyongyang 13 times trying to talk sense into the North Koreans on their nukes, extolled the U.S.-Korean relationship as about the best it’s ever been.

One more Mad Cow, though, and all bets are off. Lee’s foes would pounce on it with the ferocity of one of those lions on Discovery and National Geographic programs killing a poor wayward beast for lunch. The small protests now would explode into mass demos on a scale of those in 2008.

With or without another diagnosis of BSE in an American cow, the opposition is sure to make all it can of what it’s got — that cow a symbol of all else that’s wrong with the government. Even as the gross domestic product persists in going up, they say, those rising riches aren’t trickling down to most people.

For the North Koreans, playing mind games with insulting denunciations of Lee Myung-Bak in verbiage that resonates among his domestic foes, the prospect of one more Mad Cow — presents a conundrum.

North Korea has already added to the confusion by cyber-warfare, jamming signals of civilian and military aircraft swarming around Korea’s biggest airports and air bases. While the jamming intensifies, North Korea could hit selective targets as it did in the sinking of the Navy corvette the Cheonan in the Yellow Sea in March 2010 and the shelling of a nearby island eight months later, killing a total of 50 people.

The question for the North would be how aggressively to behave without persuading people that maybe a vote for conservative rule was needed to guarantee security. Much would depend on the ferocity of the South Korean response — a problem for the Lee government if besieged by Mad Cow protesters.

While Mad Cow guarantees headlines, nobody seems much interested in the latest statistics on the costs of the North’s nuclear program. For what it’s worth, a defense “expert” let it be known the other day, North Korea so far has invested U.S.$6.58 billion in its nuclear program. The program, said the expert, employs 3,000 “specialists” on building the nukes and the “delivery systems”: for carrying them to distant targets.

The bottom line of the report: the total cost would buy 19.4 million tons of corn from China. That would “equal eight years worth of food supply for North Korean citizens” — all of whom, presumably, would love to feed on imported beef oblivious to fears of Mad Cows.