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Rice fails to quell South Korean beef protests

South Korea, which eats more beef than most others in Asia, is in the dizzying throes of a beef-triggered populist upheaval.
Image: Condoleezza Rice, Yu Myung-hwan
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, left, talks with South Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan before their dinner in Seoul, on Saturday. Ahn Young-joon / AP
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Flying toward the Korean Peninsula on Saturday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was compelled by events on the ground to refocus her threat-assessment radar.

She shifted from the risks of nuclear weapons produced by North Korea to the risks of beef produced by American ranchers.

"I can only say that American beef is safe," Rice told reporters on her plane. "And we hope that in time the South Korean people will listen."

This past week, at least, she had more luck with Kim Jong Il's totalitarian North Korea -- which handed over a document about plutonium production and dynamited a nuclear plant cooling tower -- than with festering food fears in democratic South Korea.

This country, which eats more beef than most others in Asia, is in the dizzying throes of a beef-triggered populist upheaval.

It has crippled a newly elected president, kept the National Assembly from meeting, led local McDonald's restaurants to advertise that the meat in their burgers comes from Australia, motivated housewives to form human chains around meat lockers containing U.S. beef and turned the heart of downtown Seoul, the capital, into a nightly Woodstock where thousands of young people, many with flowers in their hair, engage in long hours of generalized fuming.

'People Are Mad'
Only some of their complaints are about beef.

"People Are Mad" is the slogan of the streets, a sentiment that is as vague as it is heartfelt.

They started getting mad in April, when the new president, Lee Myung-bak, decided to lift a four-year ban on U.S. beef. That sparked widespread fear of mad cow disease. Lee has since apologized at length on national television -- twice.

His entire cabinet offered to resign, and many of his senior staff have been replaced.

Owing to public anger, which has pushed his approval ratings below 20 percent, Lee was forced to seek a new beef agreement with the United States. The deal, which went into effect Thursday, requires that all U.S. beef exported to South Korea come from cattle slaughtered before they were 30 months old, which is believed to reduce the risk of mad cow disease.

Still, as Rice discovered in her meetings and news media encounters in Seoul on Saturday, that deal was not nearly enough to satisfy the South Koreans.

"I want to assure everyone that American beef is safe," Rice said at a joint news conference with Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan.

But when she finished her assurances, Yu said, in effect, that South Koreans are in no mood to believe her, her government or, indeed, his government.

"It will take time for that risk to be erased from the minds of the Korean public," Yu said.

Later, Rice met with President Lee and briefed him on progress in recent days in the long process of pressuring North Korea to abandon its nuclear program.

Bush trip scuttled?
Back in April, when Lee visited Washington and met with President Bush, Lee said Bush would be stopping in Seoul for a visit this year.

South Korean media reported that Bush would come here July 9, after attending a meeting in Japan of leaders of the Group of Eight industrialized countries.

That visit, though, has been delayed or possibly scuttled, apparently because of continuing protests here about U.S. beef. Rice was asked Saturday whether the presidential visit to Seoul would ever happen.

"The president very much looks forward to coming to South Korea at a convenient time for both parties," she said briskly.

Outside the heavily guarded Foreign Ministry building where the joint news conference took place, a very small crowd of protesters found a strategic site to catch the eye of Western reporters. They chanted "Rice Go Home" and held up signs that said, in English, "Out! Mad Cow Korea-U.S. Alliance."

The secretary of state's visit, however, aroused little interest among a far larger crowd of protesters in central Seoul on Saturday night.

Mad cow regulars
These were the mad cow regulars.

They included a number of parents carrying infants, but most were young people of high school and college age.

The crowd of several thousand filled the large square in front of City Hall, where they picnicked on the grass, waved banners, sang songs and generally seemed to be having a fine summer's evening.

Scores of young men spray-painted graffiti on three riot-control trucks that had been abandoned by police. The tires had been slashed and the cab contents looted.

In the past week, Lee's government has said the time has come for people to get off the streets and go back to work. It said it would crack down on protesters.

There have been confrontations in recent days, but newspaper reports say many police have allowed protesters to snatch their riot shields and helmets.

'All started with beef'
Many protesters on Saturday said they were only vaguely aware that Rice was in Seoul. In any case, they said, their anger had nothing to do with her, Bush or the U.S. government.

"What we are doing is because of our government, not because we are anti-American," said Song Joo-hee, 19. "This all started with beef, but now we believe we cannot trust our government about anything."

She and many others in the square said they see Lee and his advisers as intent on protecting the interests of rich people, while squeezing the middle class with cuts in entitlement programs.

Song said she and her friends would continue protesting until Lee's government is somehow toppled. The president is in the first year of a five-year term.

"Yes, Lee has apologized, but his apologies do not touch our hearts," she said. "God knows what he and his powerful people are doing behind closed doors. They may be eating Korean beef and asking us to eat cheap beef imported from the United States."

Later Saturday night, the mood on the square grew more menacing.

After families with young children had gone home for the evening, protesters confronted police.

About 60 of them tried to break through a government barricade. Police, using water cannons, forced them to retreat.

Rice leaves Seoul on Sunday. Protests are expected to continue.

Special correspondent Stella Kim contributed to this report.