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Demonstrations hit heart of democracy

- The Washington Times - Monday, June 16, 2008

SEOUL | Demonstrations that have paralyzed the conservative government of President Lee Myung-bak continued Sunday, with some analysts warning of a resurgence of anti-Americanism and others questioning whether Koreans have lost faith in democratic governance.

Mr. Lee won the presidency in December - by the biggest landslide in South Korea's democratic history - on a platform of revitalizing the economy and improving relations with the United States.

With high oil prices and shock waves from the subprime credit crisis roiling the global economy, Mr. Lee has been unable to deliver economically, and his Cabinet appointments have sparked criticism.

But in ultranationalist South Korea, it took a foreign issue, U.S. beef imports, to ignite protests.

"President Bush visits Korea in July," said Hahm Sung-deuk, a politics professor at Korea University. "If this problem is not resolved, it will become anti-Americanism. The Bush administration has to help Lee and allow him to renegotiate the deal."

Mr. Lee sought to limit the fallout from weeks of anti-U.S. beef protests, which swelled to hundreds of thousands last week and continued Sunday with at least 2,000 demonstrators protesting in Seoul, as U.S. and South Korean trade officials sought a face-saving compromise at meetings in Washington.

"The government stance is firm that beef from cattle older than 30 months will not be brought into [South Korea] in any case," Mr. Lee said in a meeting with an opposition leader. Meat from older cattle is thought to be at greater risk of carrying mad cow disease.

Mr. Lee said he received a positive reply from the U.S. on measures under which the American beef industry would voluntarily not ship meat from cattle older than 30 months, the Associated Press reported from Seoul. Mr. Lee called the voluntary restraint the most rational measure to resolve the beef dispute.

At his first U.S. summit, Mr. Lee announced a surprise beef deal with President Bush in April.

The U.S. Congress refuses to ratify a U.S.-Korea free-trade agreement reached last year unless Korea accepts U.S. beef imports.

South Korea, formerly the world´s No. 3 market for U.S. beef, halted all imports after an infected cow was discovered in the U.S. in 2003.

Mad cow disease refers a brain-wasting disease called bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE. At least three cases have been verified in American cows, though no human has been reported to be infected by U.S. beef.

However, explosions of rumor across the Internet alarmed many Koreans and led to weeks of protests.

Last week, when U.S. Ambassador to Seoul Alexander Vershbow suggested a focus on science and facts, he was lambasted by opposition politicians who said his comments patronized Koreans.

Some protesters have moved beyond beef, and now demand Mr. Lee´s resignation.

Given the apparent lack of focus and leadership in the demonstrations, and their diverse participation, analysts say the passion stems from Koreans´ penchant for group experience, originating not only in the pro-democracy protests of 1987, but also in the carnivallike street atmosphere of the 2002 Soccer World Cup.

"The positive point is that these demonstrations are 'do it yourself´ politics: They feel the government cannot do it, so people are trying to make it themselves," said Lim Jie-hyun, a professor at Hanyang University who studies Korean nationalism. "But I am worried that this kind of demonstration violates basic principles of democracy: There is no democratic process in DIY politics."

Some question whether Korea is casting aside democratic mores in favor of confrontational politics and street theater.

"There is a popular disappointment with the new president and I suspect that of the people out there, some have a clear political agenda and others were ones who did not bother to vote and now are suddenly fired up with a cause," said Mike Breen, author of "The Koreans."

"They have a shallow idea of the social contract of democracy."

Mr. Lee won December´s presidential election by the largest margin in Korean history, but the voter turnout was the second-lowest ever.

His Grand National Party also won subsequent National Assembly elections, granting him a powerful mandate, but now his approval ratings are less than 20 percent and his entire Cabinet has offered its resignation.