Newsmakers : “CEO of Korea” Tripped Up On Us Beef Deal



Lee Myung-bak: Beef deal sees president’s approval rating plunge.

Lee Myung-bak, the former Hyundai executive who was elected president of South Korea by a landslide last December, refers to himself as “CEO of Korea.” His promises to reform the country’s economy may remain unrealized, however, following a sudden plunge in his approval rating to less than 20%.

Following weeks of demonstrations against the government’s decision to resume imports of US beef, Lee retreated a step last month by getting suppliers to agree to block meat from older cattle. South Korea suspended most US beef imports in 2003 after a case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or “mad cow” disease, was discovered there. Lee apologized to his country earlier for agreeing to a deal with the United States in April that included few health restrictions. Lee said he had agreed to resume US beef imports to win approval of a bilateral free trade agreement. “As president, I did not want to miss this golden opportunity,” he said.

Protest leaders say the new beef-import plan doesn’t go far enough to ease their worries, however, and they pledged to resume their nightly candlelight rallies.

Meanwhile, cement truck drivers went on strike over higher fuel prices, and the country’s unions threatened a series of industrial actions. The protests began as a beef-safety issue but triggered deep-felt resentment against a government that was opening markets at a time when the economy is struggling with a global slowdown and rising inflation. The honeymoon is clearly over for Lee. Privatizations and pension reform have been put on the back burner.

Gordon Platt