Storm in a Seolleongtang Soup Bowl

The last few weeks in Seoul have been dramatic to say the least. Every night around one hundred thousand people gather in the City Hall Plaza in central Seoul, carrying candles, chanting slogans and tussling with riot police. Lee Myung Bak, president for only 100 days, is under pressure to resign his presidency and has lost key members of his cabinet. Traffic around the Northern area of Seoul city centre is almost impassable the majority of the time.

So what’s all the fuss about? Well it seems to be different things to different people. The protests started with farmers, angry with the new Free Trade Agreement with the States that will limit their own sales: American Beef is much cheaper. The farmers gained the support of the main opposition party – who many locals believe are directly behind the current protests – and convinced many people that American Beef poses an extreme health risk when it comes to Mad Cow Disease. This is despite the fact that only three cows in America have ever had the disease (no people), and all of those three cows were imported from Canada.

That’s the reason being given anyway; talking to locals gives the impression that they really are worried about Mad Cow above anything else. Considering the statistics (there’s probably more chance of being hit by lightning whilst standing between two very large buildings) – and the fact that Bird Flu was recently identified in Korea and at one stage thought to be spreading towards Seoul – this seems ludicrous.

Officially closing down the FTA does remain the target, but I can’t help feeling this is more about political maneuvering. How so many intelligent people have been convinced that mad cow disease is a serious threat to Korea, and refuse to eat beef but continue to eat (potentially influenza infected) chicken is beyond me.

The target has to be Lee Myung Bak. The president has recently been renamed ‘two mega bite’ by the press (The surname Lee is actually ‘E’ in Korean, which means 2, therefore Lee Myung Bak shortens nicely to 2Mb), as he seems to have completely forgotten all of his election promises. A combination of that, ignoring the public and some bizarre policies (building a canal the length of the country, signing an unbalanced FTA and foreign language English teachers in every public high school, for a start) have taken the guy from a comfortable election winner just over three months ago to a hate figure in this country. Nobody will admit it, but I cant help feeling that’s what the protests are really about.

I can see Mr Lee being out of office in a few months. A Korean traditional dish will be the official cause of his downfall: Seolleongtang is a ‘beef on the bone’ soup, which apparently increases the risk of contracting mad cow because the bone is left in the soup during cooking. If it does happen, Lee Myung Bak will be the first ever presidential victim of a soup incident. To me, it all seems like a bit of a storm in a soup bowl.

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