Beef protests and truck strikes cloud Korean economy
Beef and oil are still sources of ongoing crisis for the South Korean government.
First, Korean and U.S. officials are set to meet today to discuss how to resolve the U.S. beef export situation to Korea. The two sides agreed in April to allow all U.S. beef products to be exported to Korea, only for mass protests to break out in the East Asian nation over concerns of mad cow disease from U.S. cattle. In a bid to ease those concerns, the Korean government and some of the U.S.’s biggest beef exporters agreed last week that only young cattle would be exported, as young cattle are considered to carry a much lower risk of carrying the disease.
But the protests continued and threatened to undermine new Korean president Lee Myung-bak fledgling administration. The Korea Herald reported Monday that anti-Lee groups have been holding candlelight vigils in Seoul for the last two months to protest the agreement, with as many as 80,000 taking part recently.
Korean Trade Minister Kim Jong-hoon is in Washington this week, the newspaper reported, to seek assurances from the United States that exporters will voluntarily accept stringent safety testing to assuage fears in Korea.
And Korean news outlets reported that Lee is set to replace two members of his cabinet who were instrumental in the beef deal. His entire cabinet last week offered their resignations over the controversial agreement.
Meanwhile, a trucker strike in Korea over high fuel costs is gaining steam, rather than petering out, as more than 13,000 drivers have walked out as of Monday, the Herald reported. Aside from factory and harbor truckers, now construction equipment haulers and dump truck operators have joined the cause. One poignant picture showed unmanned dump trucks clogging the road connecting Seoul to Incheon Airport, the capital’s key passenger and cargo air facility.
Truckers say their livelihood is untenable if fuel persists at current rates — diesel prices have shot up more than 33 percent since January. They want the government to subsidize half the cost of fuel over $1.50 per liter, while the government has offered to subsidize half the cost over $1.70, and the two sides are apparently at an impasse.
The strike now involves union and non-union truckers and on Monday, picketing truckers blocked roads to Korea’s major ports so that non-striking truckers couldn’t get in, an attempt to completely disrupt cargo movement in the country. The strike is also far more damaging, in terms of cost per to the Korean economy per day, than a similar strike in 2003, which only involved about 5,000 union members. ' Eric Johnson