Which is worse? This is Mad Korean Disease (광한국사람병):
(Pictures are from downtown Seoul, Korea, June 2008)
Mad Korean disease has infected hundreds of thousands of Koreans since about two months ago, as it spread to an awful pandemic. Mad Korean disease causes those infected with it to want to hold candles and signs and shout in protest. In more serious cases, Koreans with Mad Korean disease have become violent, overturning buses, vandalizing buildings, and beating on riot police. More on its effects in Korean society below.
This is Mad cow disease (광우병):
Mad cow disease has infected no Koreans. In fact, in the whole world it has infected very few people and very few cows–it is very under control.
So how do the two diseases compare? Well, you wouldn’t want to get mad cow disease. It can make you go crazy and even kill you. However, it is not contagious, and if you trust science, it is non-existent in US beef (and no, one cow that had mad cow disease, but that was put down before it was ever processed into beef, does not count).
The good news about Mad Korean disease is that it hasn’t killed anybody yet (unless you count past strains). The bad news: dozens of people have been physically injured due to Mad Korean disease induced actions. The disease is extremely contagious among Koreans in Korea, and it is able to spread over internet connections. But I wouldn’t worry too much about being online and reading this blog. Mad Korean disease only seems to be contractible by Korean nationals while reading in Korean. Further bad news is that mad Korean disease takes control of the mind so that science and rational arguments are useless as vaccines. I expect more from such a highly educated population, and I am saddened to see those who should know better following the group, just like the lemmings at the top of this page.
So where did this current strain of mad Korean disease come from and why is it so persistent? Press outlets offer a number of reasons, but frankly, none of them are completely satisfying. The first and most straight forward reason is that Koreans are scared of contracting mad cow disease by eating American beef. Rumors flew that the US would export beef to Korea that was sub-quality or unchecked. They were quickly embellished to state that some of this beef was infected with mad cow disease. The craziness continued, as some “study” came out that Koreans were much more susceptible to mad cow disease than other people (don’t plan on it being published in a good scientific journal). This was complimented by fears that mad cow disease could be passed through the air, or by a kiss from someone that was infected. Then there were fears that the tainted US beef would be mixed in with the “better-tasting” (and superiorly pure) Korean beef, so that people would have no choice but to eat it (and presumably die).
Each of these rumors was shown to be just what it was–baseless and false–within a day of its birth. The US would not import sub-quality beef to Korea (For those skeptics who don’t believe, the US has a solid and honest track record of exporting beef to 96 other countries. US beef does not have mad cow disease (or at least it has never been detected in the beef that either the US consumes or that it exports all over the world). US standards for checking its beef are actually superior to those found Korea. US beef would not be mixed with beef from other sources (this is not rocket science, its fairly easy to regulate), and Koreans would still be able to choose not to buy and not to consume US beef. The other rumors are too stupid to be addressed. Because the rumors are so baseless (and easy to counter), the people that are making them have had to make new ones quickly in order to keep doubts alive.
You would think at this point Koreans would say, “Oh, I guess we really were a little too worried, but there is no reason for that now. Where is the US beef? We are tired of paying $50 for a steak size piece of meat that we can only afford every once in a while. We want an economically sane price now.” There are signs that many Koreans feel exactly this way. The handful of shops that have begun selling US beef report long lines and sell-outs from the first day of sales.
Sadly, the direction of thought of Koreans with mad Korean disease is dangerously far from such pragmatic and happy thoughts. The protests have gone non-stop for about 2 months. They have enjoyed support from a wide variety of groups, including students, unions, young mothers, Catholic priests, and Buddhist monks. If you think the protests of the past are extreme, here is a look at just how bad it really could get. The Chosun Ilbo (Union Umbrella goes Ahead with Illegal Strike) reports that one of two of Korea’s Union Umbrellas (which are basically unions of unions) has announced a general strike against the US beef import agreement (included with three other reasons for striking), to begin on Tuesday. I know what you are thinking–this has nothing to do with labor, which is what unions protect–and you are right (it is purely political); that is why the strike is illegal according to Korean law. Hopefully Koreans in the unions will see how ridiculous this is and refrain from participating.
Another report in the Chosun Ilbo (Teachers Union is Using Our Children) stated: “The Korean Teachers and Education Workers’ Union ordered its 9,000 branches in schools across the country to hang banners voicing opposition to U.S. beef imports. The KTEWU also encouraged unionized teachers to send parents letters informing them of the dangers of American beef.” Since when did teachers become so politically charged (not to mention, so moved by rumors instead of educated thought)? This is what mad Korean disease has done to otherwise sober people.
Continuing down the list of interesting articles, here are three more headlines worthy of attention: Beef Protests Disrupt Tourism Industry (Chosun Ilbo), Anti-US Beef Protests Affect Foreign Investment (Donga Ilbo), and Gov’t Adrift as Economy Hurtles Toward Crisis (Chosun Ilbo). The first and second articles explain exactly what their titles state. The second reports that an executive office cabinet reshuffle and boycott of the National Assembly (essentially Korea’s congress) by opposition lawmakers threaten to let the Korean economy slip a couple of percentage points in expected growth.
The real climax of the problem for Korea (that is if Koreans don’t come up with something more spectacular) will be if the protests are successful in banning US beef. That will basically mean no Korea-US free trade agreement. And it could cause another cooling in relations between the two allies. I can’t see how the US Congress would stand for such an unfair deal, as flawed as it is already. While there are many things that Korea can do to grow its economy domestically, if it really wants economic growth, it must be successful in trade, and it needs foreign investment. Barriers like unreasonable restrictions, tariffs, subsidies, and quotas are, in almost every case, a drain on the economy, paid for by taxpayers. If Korea doesn’t learn how to trade successfully, it will be significantly worse off, and it will make other countries significantly worse off by not adding its potential producing and purchasing power to the world stage. Just look at North Korea, similarly known for its own Korean nationalist fervor, but lacking (or rather, choosing not to participate) in most things beneficial to the world economy, or of course, to its own. Mad Korean disease is not good for Korea or Koreans, and especially not for the Korean economy.
The tragedy of the current mess and the mess that will ensue given a failed agreement, will be that it didn’t have to happen. While many Koreans will likely do anything but blame the problem on their own country when the effects really start to sink in, it really does rest firmly in their hands. This is not like global oil prices, that cannot be changed. This is a calculated choice to rebel, with a blind eye and a deaf ear to both the answers and the consequences of the problem. The only hope is to change course, which is precisely what a few of Korea’s exceptionally smart and very courageous citizens are calling for (Lawyers, University Presidents Urge End to Protests Chosun Ilbo).
The voice of reason may be taking affect. Over the weekend, the protest numbers aggregated around 50,000-60,000 by some estimates; enough people to fill some downtown streets, but far from the half-million that the protest organizers were hoping for. Perhaps this is a sign that people are becoming anesthetized to the rumors. 50,000 is still a lot of people who chose to give up their normal leisurely activities to protest. But with any luck, the protest called for by the umbrella union will be a flop, and the people will get over this mad Korean disease as if it were just a prolonged case of the flu.
Korea’s ascendancy up the economic ladder has been regarded as somewhat of a miracle. But Koreans can’t continue to allow or support such baseless protests if they want their country to remain economically strong. The past successes in no way entitle Korea to a future of economic prosperity. Living in Korea has made me a believer that just as Koreans were disciplined enough to achieve admirable growth, they are still stubborn and obstinate enough to achieve a good pace of decline. What a waste that would be. May US beef be distributed quickly and thoroughly so that either it unleashes a fury of mad cow disease (OK that’s ridiculous), or it reminds Koreans of the joys of reasonable prices and good meat, so that they can ditch the protests and get on with more important things in life.