Readers of the June 11 New York Times had a right to be startled by a front-page photo showing tens of thousands of demonstrators flooding the streets of Seoul–first because the paper had barely covered six weeks of previous protests, and second because the multitudes of people seemed out of proportion to the supposed issue at hand: fears of mad cow disease should imports of American beef resume after a five-year embargo. But the real beef was with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, who barely got inaugurated before running off to brown-nose George W. Bush. Lee’s bright idea was to push a new hard line with North Korea, even after Bush had given up that hard line, and to cozy up to Bush without a lot of apparent thought to his capricious policies toward Korea or the likelihood that the next American President will not be a Republican. Everywhere else in the world people are counting the days until Bush returns to Texas–but not in Seoul’s Blue House. This fundamental miscalculation turned a landslide victory last December into such burgeoning discontent that many analysts wonder if Lee can hold on to power.
At the heart of the problem is the perception that Lee is toadying up to an Administration that runs roughshod over Korean national sovereignty and could care less about the unprecedented warming of relations between North and South over the past decade. President Kim Dae Jung’s “sunshine policy” did more to enhance peace and reconciliation between the two Koreas than all his predecessors combined and won him the 2000 Nobel Peace Prize. His protégé and successor, Roh Moo-hyun, continued this policy through five years of intense American pressure and criticism. Both presidents were ultimately vindicated when the Bush Administration swiveled 180 degrees in early 2007 and talked directly with the North. But along came President Lee, blaming his predecessors for coddling the North over “ten lost years.” Beltway pundits fell all over themselves applauding Lee’s sagacity–finally the adults were running Korea again–and Bush rewarded Lee with a weekend visit to Camp David in April. The new Korean president brought with him what appeared to be a modest offering: lifting the ban on American beef imports.
Kim Dae Jung was the first foreign leader to visit the Bush Oval Office, in March 2001, close on the heels of Secretary of State Colin Powell, saying he wanted to continue the Kim/Clinton policy of engaging North Korea. Instead President Bush lectured the South Korean president on how Kim Jong Il, a leader Bush would later call a “pygmy,” could not be trusted. In September 2002 Bush sent an envoy to Pyongyang to accuse the North of having a second nuclear weapons program using highly enriched uranium. The predictable result was the North’s rapid repudiation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the end of the eight-year freeze on its plutonium facility and the recovery of some 8,000 plutonium fuel rods–enough for five or six atomic bombs. (As it happened, US intelligence on the North’s highly enriched uranium was no better than it was on Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction.)
In these same years Pew, Gallup and domestic Korean opinion polls uniformly showed a sharp spike in unfavorable views of the United States, clearly a result of the Bush Administration’s policy shift. According to William Watts of Potomac Associates, a Washington consulting firm, Koreans with somewhat or very favorable views of the United States dropped from 75 percent at one point in the 1990s to 53 percent during the Bush Administration, while somewhat or very unfavorable views spiked to 43 percent. This downturn delayed a free-trade agreement between the two nations, a deal now held hostage by the demonstrations and by Democrats in Congress who, in an election year, have demanded that Korea open its market to American beef and automobiles before ratifying the agreement. (Although imports of American cars have increased in recent years, it is still a novelty to spot a Ford or Chevrolet on the streets of Seoul.) Barack Obama, trying to shore up support among blue-collar workers, supports these demands as well. But in Seoul well-organized farmers’ groups and labor unions don’t want to be buffaloed by Lee’s new, supplicant regime and are determined to resist American pressure. Last year, President Roh Moo-hyun’s support for the free trade deal amid a stagnating economy caused his popularity to plummet, thus bringing Lee to power in an election based almost entirely on economic issues. But now “free trade” has heavily politicized Korean-American relations.
Meanwhile George W. Bush decided that Kim Jong Il was a pygmy he could deal with after all, resulting in the February 13, 2007, agreement on denuclearization–the origins of which remain very murky. Recall that Pyongyang celebrated American Independence Day in 2006 by blowing off one long-range Taepodong 2 missile and several medium-range rockets, and followed that in October with its first nuclear test. So why did Bush, who says he does not “reward bad behavior” and had rejected direct talks with North Korea, suddenly embrace negotiations? However it happened, the plutonium reactor is again frozen, and we again wait to see if the North will give up its nuclear program and if Washington will do its part by normalizing relations with Pyongyang.
Washington’s intentions toward Pyongyang have been at the heart of South Korean perceptions of American sincerity and good will: that’s where the beef is. The past seven years have seen an astonishing spectacle in which an impulsive American President zigzagged from gratuitous insults thrown at the North Korean head of state to charges of new nuclear programs based on flimsy evidence, only to jump on Kim Dae Jung’s merry-go-round of give-and-take diplomacy. Lee Myung-bak’s election appeared to signal a return to the good old days when neither Korean nor American leaders paid much attention to Korean public opinion. But a small matter of beef imports has put masses of Koreans into the streets and threatens to trample the very foundations of Korean-American relations.