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[Editorial] Raging Public Concern and Complacent Ministers

[Editorial] Raging Public Concern and Complacent Ministers

Posted May. 07, 2008 08:17,   


On April 18, the government concluded negotiations with the United States deciding to open its market to American beef. About two weeks later, on May 2, the Minister of Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, Chung Woon-chun, held a joint press conference with the heads of relevant government ministries to stop the spread of “myths” over mad cow disease. He gave lectures at the Agri-Food and Life Science Symposium (on April 23), the Agricultural Administration Workshop for Mayors and Governors (on April 24), the Opening Ceremony for the Joint Supervision Team for Beef Origin (on April 28) and the Policy Direction for the Agricultural Administration under the New Administration (May 1).

If he had paid keen attention to public opinion after the conclusion of beef import negotiations and strived to come up with effective countermeasures, he would not have spent his time so leisurely. Indeed, he acknowledged his mistake on this point yesterday by saying, “I thought measures to address farmers’ complaint would be enough. I didn’t know [this issue] would become a nationwide problem. I was short-sighted.”

The Ministry of Health, Welfare and Family Affairs did nothing more than post an explanation which said, “It is wrong that some media outlets called Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD) that occurred in Ulsan a few days ago as a ‘quasi-human mad cow disease.’”

The two ministries are the authorities responsible for beef import negotiations and for carrying out follow-on policies. While the issue has became so serious as to lead to an online signature drive for presidential impeachment and candlelight vigils, shaking the foundation of social trust, the ministers’ responsible for the issue remained complacent. Other ministers also failed to grasp the severity of the issue and offered empty words. In a recent cabinet meeting, Minister of Education, Science Technology Kim Doh-yeon stressed regulations for students so that they do not participate in anti-beef import demonstrations while Minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism Yu In-chon criticized entertainers who accused the government through personal Web sites.

Even if the president’s office took responsibility for coordinating the different ministries and agencies following its recent government reorganization, Prime Minister Han Seung-soo should still have served as a coordinator supervising the ministries and supporting the president. The prime minister’s insight and leadership was desperately needed to address an issue that is highly likely to reach a national scale than merely a problem just for farmers. This was probably what President Lee expected from the experienced Han when appointing him as prime minister.

On April 20, shortly after the negotiations were concluded, Han said in a ministers’ meeting, “There is considerable concern about the safety of U.S. beef. This is not the end, but the beginning.” However, that was it. No action followed. Two days later, when the president visited farmers in Pocheon, Gyeonggi Province and said, “I’ll address origin marking on beef products by all means,” the focus of follow-up measures for beef imports suddenly shifted to the supervision of origin marking. The administration and the cabinet showed a lack of depth.

Under these circumstances, one can only wonder whether the prime minister and other ministers are really listening to this latest wake-up call.