- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Something smells in South Korea - and it is not bad beef from the United States.

Following substantial victories in the December 2007 presidential election and the April 2008 legislative election, South Korea’s conservative GNP Party - which had not held the presidency for a decade - was riding high.

On its face, these two elections gave the new president, Lee Myung Bak, a mandate to reverse the policies of liberal, opposition party, former Presidents D. J. Kim and Roh Moo Hyun. Those policies had left a divide between Seoul and Washington on several issues. The main issue was Seoul’s “Sunshine” policy of appeasement toward North Korea, under which billions of dollars in cash and commodities went to Pyongyang to “buy” peace on the peninsula. Yet the more Seoul gave, the more threatening Pyongyang became.

With Mr. Lee’s election, it became clear the priorities of the previous two administrations, which subordinated the U.S.-South Korea alliance to peace at any price with North Korea, would be reversed.

But only two months after the GNP’s April legislative election victory, President Lee’s honeymoon with voters appears over. Two hundred thousand protesters took to the streets of Seoul earlier this month. What was their beef with Mr. Lee? Well, it was beef - specifically, the importation of U.S. beef. This dramatic shift in popularity for President Lee stems from his recent decision to lift South Korea’s five-year ban on U.S. beef imports. The ban, imposed after a single cow from the United States was discovered to have mad cow disease, is replaced by a voluntary U.S. commitment not to export to South Korea beef from cows older than 30 months. But protesters claim such a voluntary ban fails to protect them, subordinating the safety of their health to U.S. interests.

These protests, however, reflect a much deeper problem than the low-risk threat posed by beef from a sick American cow possibly entering into the South Korean food chain. Just as Queen Gertrude poignantly observed in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” “The lady doth protest too much,” so too do these demonstrators.

For a political party to be out of office for a decade, for it to come back and win two major elections providing a vehicle for change, for it then to have its brakes applied just months later by massive protests, belies a problem deeper than U.S. beef imports and dissatisfaction with a GNP administration only months old.

Obviously, an underlying problem has been simmering in South Korea that only needed a triggering event to boil over. While the triggering event may have been provided by President Lee’s decision concerning U.S. beef imports, the underlying problem was created by his predecessors. For 10 years, Lee’s predecessors fostered an undercurrent of anti-Americanism. They embarked upon their Sunshine policy, assuring the public it would bring philosophical change in North Korea. When that change failed to occur, the United States became a convenient scapegoat due to its hard-line policy toward Pyongyang.

Anytime Seoul could fuzz over its failed Sunshine policy by shining a critical spotlight on the United States, it did so. Thus, in 2003, when Washington sought to reorganize and consolidate its military assets in South Korea by relocating them further south to maximize responsiveness and minimize costs, the Roh government portrayed this as a selfish U.S. effort to move its own forces outside North Korean artillery range. Thus, fed a constant diet of “anti-American beef” by Mr. Lee’s predecessors, this same generation of young South Koreans was well-represented in Seoul’s recent protests.

President Lee is not without some blame. A poor performing economy under his predecessor provided a springboard to help the GNP return to power. While Mr. Lee has had little time to revitalize that economy, he is perceived as catering to the influential rather than bringing into government those qualified to turn things around. He also leaves in place anti-American machinery Mr. Roh installed, such as South Korea’s ambassador to the United States.

It is sad to see hundreds of thousands of South Korean protesters take to the streets, driven by anti-American sentiment. It is sad too that not once during the last decade were similar protests ever triggered by the acts of a repressive and brutal Pyongyang regime denying North Koreans basic human rights and continually threatening stability on the peninsula.

President Lee has his work cut out for him in educating a young generation of South Koreans as to who is friend and who is foe. This will be a challenge due to the damage done to domestic perceptions of the United States by a decade of pro-Pyongyang/anti-Washington sentiment fostered by Mr. Lee’s predecessors. Hopefully, in time, this generation will come to understand with whom their real “beef” lies.

James G. Zumwalt, a Marine veteran of the Persian Gulf and Vietnam wars, is a contributor to The Washington Times.

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