What began with high school students worried about the safety of U.S. beef has swelled into a major challenge to the government of new South Korean President Lee Myung-bak — culminating in protests of 80,000 people Tuesday who failed to be placated by his entire Cabinet offering to resign.
In weeks of street rallies by angry critics of Lee, what had been seen as the former businessman's strengths have instead been blasted as weaknesses. Nicknamed "The Bulldozer" for decisively pushing through projects as a Hyundai construction CEO and Seoul mayor, Lee has instead been labeled by protesters as a "dictator" who fails to heed public opinion and panders to American interests.
His December election win ended a decade of liberal rule and was seen as bringing more professionalism to the presidency, and also healing strained ties with the United States. But a string of Cabinet appointments in which nominees were forced to resign amid allegations of real estate speculation and other irregularities even before he took office in February made for a political honeymoon that went by with blinding speed even for South Korea, a country where rushing is a way of life.
That rush to succeed was why South Koreans elected Lee in a campaign where he cruised to a landslide victory on hopes he would inject new life into the country's economy. But with the global slowdown dragging on South Korea's export-driven economy and rising food prices fueling inflation, Lee found himself quickly hedging promises that the country could soon regain its earlier dynamism.
President facing opposition
He planned to dig a canal down the center of the peninsula in a showpiece project to boost transport and tourism, but professors and environmentalists lined up against the idea.
Given all that, disappointment was already simmering when Lee's government pushed through a last-minute agreement to resume U.S. beef imports just before he met for his first summit with President Bush in April. Beef imports had been banned for most of the time since 2003, when a case of mad cow was discovered in cattle in the U.S., closing what had once been the third-largest market for American exports.
A sensational report on a popular news show raised worries about U.S. beef, even claiming that Koreans were more genetically susceptible to the human variant of mad cow disease.
High school students were concerned that the cheaper U.S. imports would be used in their school lunches without their knowledge, despite government pledges to enforce labeling of meat for the country of its origin.
Both Seoul and Washington insist U.S. beef is safe, citing the Paris-based World Organization for Animal Health.
The thousands of uniformed high schoolers carrying candles in calm vigils quickly grew into daily rallies — sometimes violent — as more groups latched on to the anti-Lee cause, raising issues about a range of policies including reforms for health care and the educational system.
Protests a way of life
Protests are a way of life in Korea and riot police are a common sight in the city center.
Still, Tuesday's protest — the largest-yet over the beef issue with 80,000 people — was on a scale not recently seen here. Police used shipping containers to block the capital's central thoroughfares to prevent crowds from marching to the nearby presidential Blue House.
The protest came on the anniversary of pro-democracy struggles that intensified in the late 1980s and eventually caused the downfall of South Korea's military-backed regime.
Earlier in the day, thousands of conservative, pro-government activists demonstrated near the site of the anti-U.S. beef rally.
The entire Cabinet offered to resign earlier Tuesday, but Lee did not say whether he would accept their departures. The president is accorded a healthy amount of power in the constitution, and the government reshuffle was not expected to affect Lee's ability to serve out his single, five-year term.
But even before he really got going, "The Bulldozer" is stuck in neutral and what he will be able to accomplish in office has been thrown into doubt.