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Senators Protest Korea Beef Controls

Posted January. 19, 2007 03:00,   


Korea-U.S. trade friction over imported beef has gone beyond an emotional conflict and changed into a political issue.

On December 17, eleven U.S. senators including Max Baucus, Chairman of Senate Finance Committee, expressed their strong discomfort, saying they would not support the KOR-U.S. FTA if the beef trade is not normalized.

Seoul and Washington failed to make additional detailed rules for boneless beef imports by December 18, the designated deadline under the MOU. Worse still, they have yet found no solutions to deal with this issue.

“Room for intergovernmental negotiation has been reduced. Therefore, this issue should be resolved through politics, rather than administration. Political leaders should step forward to tackle this problem even if they come under immediate criticism,” said negotiation experts.

Visiting Congress after getting an invitation by the Senate on December 17, Korean ambassador to the U.S. Lee Tae-sik met 11 senators from beef importing states. Those included Nebraska, Kentucky, Colorado, and Montana. They asked for normalizing U.S. beef imports to Korea.

Normalization meant going back to the state before the mad cow disease outbreak that occurred in December 2003. At that time, Korea imported beef with bone as well.

“U.S. beef is safe. We cannot make excuses to our beef producers any longer. Regardless of the age of cows or existence of bones, beef imports must be resumed. Otherwise, we can’t support the KOR-US FTA,” said Senator Baucus, who will participate in the ratification of FTA negotiation.

AFP described this as ‘The ultimatum of eleven.’

Washington’s strong opposition was felt long ago. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association had issued a statement: We would not demand that Korea bend food sanitation principles or change the food safety standard. Just follow the permissible level under international trade practice.

Senator Byron Dorgan’s remark during an unofficial meeting reflected the hostile atmosphere of the Congress: “We should return all 700,000 imported Hyundai cars if any problem occurs during a safety test.”

One Washington official said Korea’s import ban on beef with bone is no different from the absurd interpretation in ‘The Merchant of Venice’, one of William Shakespeare`s best-known plays. Shylock, the vile moneylender, was free to take a pound of Antonio`s flesh from wherever he pleases if Antonio is unable to repay the loan at the specified date. But Shylock became unable to punish Antonio because their contract only allows him to remove the flesh, not blood, of Antonio. Senators are saying that interpreting ‘boneless’ as ‘bone-free’ is absurd and against international practice.

Last year and early this year, the Korean government expressed to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) several times its desire for inspecting the hygiene condition of slaughterhouses in America. It is said, however, the USDA rejected Seoul’s request.

Perhaps because of this conflict, Washington did not participate in the ‘Technical Consultation on Korea-U.S. beef inspection’, which was scheduled to be held early this year. When agreeing to begin accepting boneless beef from cattle younger than 30 months last year, both governments reserved to make decision on details including the definition of ‘boneless’, range of toxic materials, and whether to conduct full or sample test.

Late last year, Korea imported 9 tons of beef over three times, but sent all of them back twice after discovering bones through X-ray testing. During the third import, the inspection authorities ripped the package open because the x-ray was not fully equipped for thorough investigation. They found a fingernail-sized bone and sent back all the imported beef again.

Japan, one of United State’s biggest beef importers along with Korea, resumed the import of beef with bones from cattle younger than 20 months.

In Korea, opinions are divided between the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (MOAF), the main office of Korean cattle business, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MOFAT) and the Ministry of Finance and Economy (MOFE), those in charge of KOR-US FTA negotiations. One clear thing is that the beef import issue has been too bloated to be resolved at the ministerial level.

One official of U.S. cattle industry said the issue is unlikely to be resolved anytime soon, because he heard a MOAF official saying that the Korean government is letting a working level group make a decision on the detailed inspection process. Washington continues to hint that the beef issue should be resolved by political leaders, not by administration officials.

In the Korean political circle, however, it is difficult to find politicians who call for rational negotiation in accordance with international practice. Anti-U.S. sentiment still remains and opponents say beef imports are dangerous. In the meantime, lawmakers from rural provinces strongly argue that accepting U.S. beef with bone should never be allowed.

“Following the international practice may lead to a loss of votes for politicians. But if Korean people think seriously through a rational mind, international negotiation would be fully justifiable,” said one official on condition of anonymity.