Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Travelogue #40: 40,000 Koreans on the Street (Is It Really Just About Beef?)

<---Travelogue #39: Live from World Cup Stadium: Korea v. Jordan!
--->Travelogue #41: "Just Doing It for the Experience..." / What Does That Really Mean?

Note: This article was featured in an abbreviated form in the July 2008 issue of The East (UK).

hey want to be beaten up, they want to be arrested, and they want it to be seen on tv.

Minutes ago they attacked the barricade, flopping it until it flung off its hinges. Now they're jabbing ladders up at the policemen. The candlelit crowd roars for these shirtless rebels. It's after midnight on Jongo, and an estimated 40,000 protesters and navel-gazers have shut down one of the busiest thoroughfares in Seoul. They're mad about mad cow disease and U.S. beef imports, and they're not going anywhere. Through a bullhorn the police warns against illegal violence, only to be countered with a truck-riding protester and his intercom chant of "YOU ARE ILLEGAL! THE GOVERNMENT IS ILLEGAL!"

I've never before been to a protest, much less one of this magnitude. The mad cow controversy has effectively conquered Korea: you can't pass a television set without seeing the persistent stream of protests or President Lee Myung-bak's befuddled reactions to the ongoing frenzy. The issue is on the tip of my students' tongues, and I've torn my hair out trying to remain even-handed at a disease I see as dangerous...only because of its overblown, out-of-proportion reputation for danger.

On this very blog, a thoughtful reader commented on a previous post of mine, arguing on behalf of those who see legitimate risk in importing American beef. "My opinion is that only one percent of risk is high enough, because we are not talking about a tummyache, but a disease that kills your brain slowly," he said. I cringed at how mischievously he squeezed "kills your brain slowly" into a sentence where even he admits the extreme unlikelihood of contracting the disease. And forget one percent: according to the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, "A rough estimate of this risk for the UK in the recent past, for example, was about 1 case per 10 billion servings." And that's in the UK, a country with a legitimate outbreak of mad cow disease in the 1990s, as opposed to the USA, where all of three cows were ever found to carry the sickness.

But therein lies the rub. At the protest, I see firsthand how little the outcry has to do with beef safety. This is about individual agendas. While news outlets like the Korea Times later report that, "40,000 protesters marched in downtown Seoul Saturday," I find these "protesters" less than completely united, not to mention how some of them look disinterested in "marching." I see many huddled on blankets, eating tomatoes and drinking soju. I see others hoisting Che Guevara revolucion flags, and still others raising the rainbow gay pride flag. Families are picnicking and college students are laughing.

You can argue that such diversity in this crowd spells solidarity against the beef imports, but to me it spells a blur of disassociated iconography that builds to a whole lot of posturing and a fair bit of violence.

Not everybody is cheering on the shirtless rebels as they try to climb atop the buses and engage the police fist-to-fist,

but nobody is booing. The better-mannered candlelit majority is complicit. Some of them have been on this street for seventy-two hours, but still they chant for Lee Myung-bak to resign. They chant and chant and chant.
I feel sorry for Korea's president. But what can I do?


<---Travelogue #39: Live from World Cup Stadium: Korea v. Jordan!

--->Travelogue #41: "Just Doing It for the Experience..." / What Does That Really Mean?



Anonymous said...

"I see many huddled on blankets, eating tomatoes and drinking soju." Just wait until they hear about the tomato scare here in the United States. That will give them something else to bitch about.

Protests kinda make me nervous. I don't like being at them at all. Come home, Alex. ;~)


Michael said...

That hat again. Seriously?

Alex Pollack said...

It's no cowboy hat at Blue Heron, Michael, but it's how I mix it up.

Anonymous said...

The hat is kickin' cool!!

Ploch said...

Is the beef scare really about food or just a convenient excuse for otherwise pro-American South Koreans to express their anger with our country? I have the impression that the South Koreans might be too polite to directly criticize their "protector" nation, or am I wrong?

Is their current president a little too pro-US? What counts as too pro-US there?

Alex Pollack said...

Yeah, Ryan, the South Korean president is trying to strengthen relations with the U.S., so that's absolutely part of the backlash against him. But, at the risk of sinking into generalities, South Koreans seem to have a love-hate relationship with the U.S. - on one hand, there's a palpable drive to learn English, study abroad, and enjoy Quiznos and Indiana Jones; on the other hand, there's a resentment against America's presence along the military border with North Korea and a basic distaste for American "loudness". Some South Koreans worry that America basically uses and abuses South Korea for only the benefit of the U.S. Some students in one of my friend's classes view the U.S. as being more dangerous to South Korea's well-being than North Korea!

Anyway, some of the mad cow madness can be chalked up to anti-U.S. sentiment, though the protesters' anger is more directed at their president than ours...though they don't have the kindest words for Bush either. A blanket I saw at the protest had a cartoon of a pointy-eared Bush saying "sorry" and pushing the Korean president off a cliff. So there you go.

That being said, they like themselves some Obama here.

Adam said...

Yeah, I don't get the hat either, man. Just to be honest. Maybe it's a Korean thing.

Anonymous said...

The boy've got style.I'll say the hat stays.
I am a big fan of your blog.



Intelligent design

The Korean government are forward thinkers. Some bright spark at the internal affairs office realised that instead of buying costly street sweepers they could just use bored middle aged women. Thusly every Korean mother or aunt is bowlegged, shaped like a question mark and smells of bins. But those street corners, wow.

...more at: lifestyleguides.blogspot.com

Ploch said...

Addendum: during the european football championships yesterday, angry, protesting Koreans were in the news update. Has it gotten worse?

Alex Pollack said...

The protests have gotten bigger since my post, but it looks like the government is stepping in a bit more directly and wielding its authority. (Recently, they raided protester headquarters and nabbed some computers.) The beef is coming, whether the Koreans like it or not.