Thursday, May 29, 2008

South Korea to resume U.S. beef imports

South Korea's government announced Thursday it is going ahead with a much-criticized deal to resume imports of U.S. beef — a move that could escalate the daily street protests against the plan.

Agriculture Minister Chung Woon-chun said in a nationally televised announcement that the government has finalized new quarantine regulations for U.S. beef in accordance with an April 18 agreement with Washington.

The new regulations call for South Korea to import nearly all cuts of American beef without restrictions on the age of the cattle. That represents a significant easing of previous rules, which banned imports of meat attached to bones or from older cattle considered more susceptible to mad cow disease.
The relaxed rules will take effect as soon as they are published in a government journal in a few days.

Thursday's announcement, which had been delayed amid anti-government protests, was the final administrative step necessary to resume U.S. beef imports.

It cleared the way for American beef to return to South Korean store shelves for the first time since last year, when limited imports were briefly allowed before again being suspended.

Some 5,300 tons of U.S. beef, shipped earlier to South Korea but held in customs and quarantine storage facilities, will begin undergoing inspections early next week before being put on the market, according to the ministry.

Chung sought to dispel public concern over mad cow disease, saying the government would immediately halt imports if a new case of the illness breaks out in the United States, and would strictly control cattle parts banned over the disease.

"The government will protect the people's heath and food safety by thoroughly managing the inspection and distribution of U.S. beef," he said.

Still, the announcement is likely to intensify anti-government rallies in Seoul, which have been held on a near-daily basis in recent weeks to protest the agreement. Protesters believe the accord does not adequately protect the country from infected beef.

A small group of protesters staged a rally Thursday outside the government building where the announcement was made. Police estimated some 10,000 protesters would gather Thursday night in central Seoul for a rally.

Under the deal, South Korea pledged to scrap nearly all the quarantine restrictions imposed by the previous government to guard against mad cow disease. South Korea suspended imports of U.S. beef after the first American case of mad cow disease appeared in December 2003 in a Canadian-born cow in Washington state. Two subsequent cases were also discovered.
Several efforts to resume imports foundered after banned substances such as bones were discovered in shipments from the U.S.

Protesters accuse the government of ignoring their concerns about food safety. Worries about mad cow disease have been fanned by some sensational media reports, but both governments have repeatedly said American beef poses no health risk.

Scientists believe mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, spreads when farmers feed cattle recycled meat and bones from infected animals. The U.S. banned recycled feeds in 1997. In humans, eating meat products contaminated with the cattle disease is linked to variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a rare and fatal malady.

The rallies, which began in early May, have been mostly peaceful, although tensions flared this week after the government instructed police to take a harder line.

Police have detained more than 200 protesters in recent days, later releasing 92.

The protests are a major headache for President Lee Myung-bak, who took office three months ago. He sought last week to reassure the country over the safety of U.S. beef, but failed to ease public anger.

Critics accuse Lee of making too many concessions on the beef issue in an attempt to gain U.S. congressional approval for a broader bilateral free trade agreement.


Friday, May 23, 2008

Let Then Eat Juche

A DECADE after a famine killed 500,000-1m people in North Korea, recent news from the benighted country suggests it is once again on the brink of mass starvation. The state food distribution system seems to have broken down everywhere, including the capital, Pyongyang, which usually gets special treatment from Kim Jong Il's regime. In the absence of public distribution, North Koreans rely increasingly on informal or illegal markets for grain. There, a new paper by the Peterson Institute for International Economics (IIE) in Washington argues, recent extreme price rises appear consistent with the onset of famine.

Good Friends, a Buddhist human-rights group in South Korea, says that in rural areas families are again adding tree-bark and grass to their diet, and foraging for food in the wild. It says that in South Pyongan province in west-central North Korea, people are already dying of starvation, while listless farmers ignore officials' calls to plant this year's rice. Last month the World Food Programme (WFP) called for urgent help to avert a “serious tragedy”.

North Korea, admittedly, has a chronic food crisis. The 23m-odd population is large for the country's arable land, and the weather is often unfavourable: late-summer floods in 2006 and 2007 caused widespread damage. But North Korea's neighbours, China and South Korea, share similar features without going short of food. By contrast, North Korea is both international ward and pariah. Its reckless foreign policy hinges on nuclear blackmail, which deters foreign donors, and the regime frustrates efforts to ensure aid goes to those who most need it. It has suppressed agricultural markets while failing to spend on rural infrastructure or even fertiliser. Crucially, an unreformed economy means inadequate exports of goods or commodities that could pay for food imports.

Calculating North Korea's food needs is a politicised game of inadequate data. The IIE paper, by Stephan Haggard, Marcus Noland and Erik Weeks, reckons that the country needs 4m tonnes of grain a year (one-fifth less than estimates by the WFP). The authors conclude that, in the absence of the massive food aid that was supplied in the years after the famine, there is now less than 100,000 tonnes to spare.

In one sense the situation is more critical than in earlier years. In 2005, after a decent harvest, the regime sought to stamp on burgeoning markets, redirect grain supplies through the public-distribution system and get people to return to their work units: male vendors were banned from markets and then, last year, women under 50. Yet the public system is under strain. Andrei Lankov of Kookmin University says that some cities have not accepted ration coupons for food since last year. It is not just grain itself: electricity and fuel for threshing and transport are also short. People are forced on to the black market, where rice has shot up from 860 won (about $6) a kilo a year ago to 3,100 today. Income per head is perhaps $500 a year.

In theory, America is ready to assist with big supplies of aid, but that could take time and, possibly, a satisfactory declaration of North Korea's nuclear programmes. The WFP struggles to raise money and awareness over North Korea's plight. Yet since late 2005 North Korea has restricted its operations in the country.

Grain can come fastest from China and South Korea. But China is concerned about its own food supply, imposing taxes and quotas on exports as global prices rise. China is coy about food donations, but North Korean ingratitude probably reduces the potential amount. After last summer's floods, China refused to ship UN grain by rail until North Korea returned at least some of its 1,800 missing wagons.

As for South Korea, previous levels of aid are now in doubt under the new administration of Lee Myung-bak. Mr Lee has tied future South Korean assistance to the North to denuclearisation and human rights. Emergency aid is exempt from such conditions, he says, but the North must request it. Having reacted furiously to Mr Lee, Mr Kim's regime will be loth to do so.

Tens of thousands of North Koreans escaped the previous famine by fleeing to China. Covert cross-border trade also helped alleviate some misery. This year, ahead of the Beijing Olympics, China wants no trouble, while North Korea has also cracked down at the border. Good Friends says that in February 13 women and two men were executed for planning to cross into China. The regime calls the first famine the “arduous march” under Mr Kim's glorious leadership. If there is to be a second march, it seems no North Korean is to be allowed to escape its rigours.