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Lawmakers Lambast Gov’t for Lax Reaction to Beef Issue

Posted May. 15, 2008 07:27,   


The second-day parliamentary hearing on the KORUS FTA held by the National Assembly’s Committee on Unification, Foreign Affairs and Trade, yesterday was focused on the controversy over U.S. beef imports. It was initially expected that opposition parties would collide with the ruling party over whether the Ministry of Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries should delay the public notification of the terms regarding the beef deal with the United States. But as Agriculture Minister Chung Woon-chun announced that the government would put off the promulgation, the hearing was focused on the demand for renegotiation of the deal and calls for the government to take responsibility for the situation.

On the postponement of the public notification, committee members from the ruling Grand National Party asked for over 10 days’ delay for a comprehensive review of the matter, while those from opposition parties countered that a delay without a premise of amendment of the terms or renegotiation is nothing short of cheating the public.

Opposition parties including the liberal United Democratic Party criticized the agriculture minister’s plan to delay the scheduled notification as a ploy to divert public attention and urged the government to immediately launch the renegotiation process. Pointing out at the government’s lame responses to the issue, the GNP called for the government to take the lead in clearing up public fear over the safety of U.S. beef.

“The long delay of the notification is an attempt to buy time to wait until public protests in the form of candlelight vigils subside, and then push for the plan,” said Rep. Yun Ho-jung of the UDP and argued that the postponement without revision and renegotiation of the terms is a deception.

Some GNP lawmakers, who are apparently aware of the people’s disenchantment with the ruling camp, even suggested partial revision of the deal.

GNP Rep. Nam Kyung-pil said at the hearing, “Without renegotiating, the government should go all out to allay the public’s apprehension,” and argued the condition is right for the government to announce a revised notification without the provision in question that triggered the controversy over Korea’s quarantine sovereignty, citing the remark by the U.S. Trade Representative that it respected the Korean prime minister’s statement that the government will suspend U.S. beef imports when made cow disease occurs in the United States.

To this, Trade Minister Kim Jong-hoon expressed his opposition, saying, “Basically, the notification precisely reflects what Korea and the United States agreed upon. Unilateral deletion (by the government) will bring about a dispute with the other party.”

Meanwhile, Rep. Park Jin of the GNP pointed out the government’s insufficient responses after the negotiation rather than the results of the deal, saying, “The government’s effort was not enough to dispel the people’s suspicions over the safety of U.S. beef.”

Park suggested striking a deal on voluntary export restraint with the United States that would delay the import of beef from the cattle aged 30 months or older for six months to a year.

UDP Lawmakers maintained that the committee should draw up a resolution that calls for renegotiation. But faced with the GNP’s opposition, they backed down on their request and agreed to the need for additional discussions.

At the hearing, Health Minister Kim Soung-yee and Agriculture Minister Chung were grilled the most among the nine witnesses on hand.

On the remarks made by Minister Kim on the previous day, Rep. Kim Yong-gap of the GNP lashed out at him by saying, “What we worry is whether humans would be infected with mad cow disease. What on earth could the minister in charge of the matter say such a thing as if it was not your own concern?”

Minister Kim invited a controversy when he said, “I wasn’t aware that people eat beef from cows younger than 30 months of age, Aren’t humans too cruel?”, while making remarks to the effect that the responsibility for U.S. beef imports rests with the agriculture ministry, not with the health ministry. After that, Kim has been criticized for being complacent as head of the relevant ministry.

Rep. Kang Chang-il of the UDP asked Kim, “You said the responsibility is on the foreign minister, didn’t you?” When Kim sought to give an answer, Kang cut his answer short and sarcastically said, “You did a good job. Nobody finds fault with you. I ask you to do your job as you have done according to your conviction.”

Agriculture Minister Chung found himself in hot water when asked whether he was willing to resign to take responsibility for all the troubles. Asked by GNP lawmaker Nam Kyung-pil about his opinion on the request for his resignation, Chung said he would do his duty under any circumstances. But Nam put him into a corner once again by asking, “Don’t you agree to the need for the resignation?”

Rep. Park Hee-tae of the GNP upped the offensive against Chung by posing a volley of questions when he failed to give easy explanations about measures to compensate for possible damage to farmers and fishers caused by the KORUS FTA. When Chung said he was drawing up detailed plans, Park lambasted, “Before asking for a parliamentary approval, you should have assured and persuaded farmers with measures.”

The parliamentary hearing also saw the government official being rebuked for their incompetency on the negotiation table with the United States. Both the ruling and opposition parties were in chorus in holding the government to account and urging it to come up with countermeasures.

UDP lawmaker Suh Gab-won argued that a homepage of the National Cattlemen`s Beef Association posted the Korean government’s plan to resume U.S. beef imports beginning Feb. 28 right after the inauguration of the Lee Myung-bak administration. He said the post is still there and reads, “Korean President Lee Myung-bak wants to settle disagreement with the U.S. government. The Korean government is scheduled to ease the regulation on age limit.” Saying the post was written right after the head of the association visited Korea, he criticized the government for having already decided to open up the beef market before starting the negotiation.

To this, Agriculture Minister Chung answered that Suh appeared to look only at the political aspect.

Committee members once again criticized the government for striking the beef deal in April in haste, as in yesterday’s hearing.

UDP lawmaker Kim Jong-yull said, “Right before the Korea-U.S. summit talk on April 19, Korea’s trade representatives engaged in negotiation through the night. By extending negotiation periods, we should have gone through with our positions.”

Rep. Yun Ho-jung of the UDP also said, “How could we understand the situation where no meeting of economy-related ministers for reviewing the economic aftereffect of the resumption of U.S. beef imports has been held before and after the negotiation.”

“The KORUS FTA allows investors to sue. If U.S. beef importers, who have entered the domestic beef market, launch lawsuits when we suspend the import in the event of made cow disease outbreak, we have no provisions to counter those lawsuits,” said Rep. Choi Sung of the UDP.

In response to this, Trade Minister Kim refuted, “Unless only American importers are prohibited from import while Korean importers are allowed, that cannot be the subject of lawsuit,” and added, “This kind of misunderstanding and misconception brings unfounded fear.”

Rep. Choi also raised suspicions over the safety of certain beef cuts. He said, “The beef cuts that are deemed risky and banned in school cafeterias will enter the domestic market.” The cuts he referred to include diapophysis in the cervical vertebrae, the thoracic vertebrae and some parts in the thoracic vertebrae.

“Some say so, but the argument isn’t backed by the scientific circle,” Agriculture Minister Chung said, denying the allegation by asking a question in return, “How could the government import risk materials?”

“Only political solutions can resolve the issues of FTA ratification and beef imports at the same time,” said GDP lawmaker Kim Kwang-won. He suggested an array of measures, including President Lee’s public apology, the spontaneous passage of the FTA ratification motion and a resolution that urges renegotiation, and a talk between leaders from the both ruling and opposition parties.