Seoul protest threatens to topple government
President Lee Myung Bak confronted the biggest challenge to his young and unpopular administration Tuesday as tens of thousands of demonstrators filled central Seoul to protest his agreement to resume imports of American beef and to denounce a broad range of other government policies.
The entire cabinet offered to resign as a way to help Lee find a way out of the crisis. It was unclear how many cabinet members Lee would replace, but he indicated that the changes could be substantial.
Lee's 107-day-old government has been beset by fears - partly stoked by media reports and his critics - that his agreement to reopen South Korea to American beef could expose the public to mad cow disease.
In a way, lifting the import ban on American beef was a long overdue action that Seoul had promised to take once the World Organization for Animal Health ruled American beef safe, as it did last September.
But until Lee, politicians here had shunned taking the political risk because, among left-leaning or nationalistic young South Koreans, the issue has become a test of whether Seoul can stand up to Washington.
For 40 days, central Seoul has been rocked by demonstrations, which began as rallies by hundreds of teenage students, singing, dancing and holding candles to protest American beef. They have evolved into a protest against government policies on education, health care and consumer prices.
Once hailed as a potential savior of the troubled economy, Lee has lost public confidence in his leadership over a broad range of policies as the nation is grappling with a slowing economy and a prolonged crisis over North Korea's nuclear weapons programs, political analysts said.
"Lee Myung Bak, out!" protesters chanted, brandishing yellow and red cards carrying the same message.
The rally had an almost festive mood, with antigovernment slogans reverberating through the city center well past midnight. Loudspeakers blared the songs South Koreans sang during their struggle against the military dictators of the 1970s and '80s. Large balloons carried banners that read "Judgement day for Lee Myung Bak" and "Renegotiate the beef deal." One widely distributed leaflet said: "Mad cow drives our people mad!"
South Korea banned American beef imports in December 2003 after a case was reported in the United States.
The police estimated the crowd at 100,000, while organizers claimed it amounted to 700,000.
The protesters appeared to encompass a broad spectrum of society: students, union members, Roman Catholic nuns, office workers in neckties, and mothers and fathers holding hands with small children.
Up to 21,000 police officers were present, barricading roads leading to the presidential Blue House with buses and shipping containers. Protesters spray-painted the barricades with anti-Lee slogans.
The agriculture minister, Chung Won Chun, visited the rally to offer an apology in a speech, but protesters quickly surrounded him chanting "traitor" and he quickly left.
Lee appealed to the police and protesters to avoid clashes. He promised to be "humble before the people's voices" and called for national unity to overcome an economic crisis spawned by stagnant growth and surging prices for oil and other raw materials.
"Our economy is faced with a serious difficulty, with prices rising and the economy gradually slowing," Lee said in a speech Tuesday to mark the 21st anniversary of democracy protests that helped end the years of military dictatorship.
Protesters have accused Lee of being too eager to please the United States, even at the expense of the health of his own people.
Such criticism gained currency when it was revealed that South Korea had agreed to a less-restrictive beef importation deal than Taiwan and Japan did.
Lee offered no immediate comment on whether he would accept the offers of resignation by Prime Minister Han Seung Soo and other cabinet members. But their offers, coupled with an earlier offer by his top aides to resign, opened the way for Lee to overhaul his government for a new beginning as he tries to arrest his plummeting approval ratings.
On Monday, Lee sent a delegation to Washington to help defuse the crisis and amend the April deal so that the United States would not export beef from cattle older than 30 months, similar to the deals Japan and Taiwan reached with the United States. Younger cattle are believed to be less susceptible to mad cow disease.
"The most serious problem for the president is that he has lost the people's confidence," said Kang Won Taek, a political scientist at Soongsil University in Seoul. "People do not trust what he says or what he does."
Lee won the presidency in December with the biggest margin of victory in decades. But his popularity rating has plunged below 20 percent since his government agreed to reopen markets to beef from the United States.
The agreement came as Lee championed a new "pragmatic" approach to relations with Washington. He also made it his top priority to rebuild the alliance with the United States while pursuing closer cooperation in dealing with North Korea. The alliance between Washington and Seoul had shown signs of strain under Lee's predecessor, Roh Moo Hyun, who was often accused of stoking and capitalizing on the nationalistic and often anti-American sentiments of young South Koreans.
Lee hoped his decision to end the five-year-old ban on American beef would help win U.S. congressional support for a free trade agreement struck between the two governments last year.
The free trade pact is the United States' most ambitious in Asia. U.S. and South Korean officials hoped that the deal would bring the United States closer to its key Asian ally, as well as providing a badly needed boost to the South Korean economy, which feels rising pressure between high-tech Japan and low-cost China.