What's the Beef on the South Korean President's Low Approval?

by Michael Kulma

South Korean shoppers buy US beef at a small butchers' shop in Seoul on July 2, 2008 after the government formally lifted an import ban. (JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images)

by Michael Kulma

Originally published in the Taipei Times, July 17, 2008

At the outset of the ongoing violent protests in South Korea over imported beef from the US, the entire Cabinet of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak offered to resign. Last week, Lee fired three of them. But beef, it turns out, represents just the tip of the iceberg of grievances against Lee. Only four months in office, his approval rating is down to single digits.

Lee won the election last December with 48.7 percent of the vote, having run on the "747" platform, promising 7 percent annual GDP growth, per capita income of US$40,000, and to make South Korea the world's seventh-largest economy (up from 13th currently). During his inauguration speech, he vowed to revive the economy, strengthen relations with the US, and deal with North Korea.

So what went wrong?

The economy is slowing—the Bank of Korea cut its growth forecast for this year to 4.7 percent, while the Organization for Economic Community Development expects only 4.3 percent growth—inflation is rising, and some are concerned that Lee's policies are too geared toward foreign investors and big business. Lee also must confront factors beyond his control, such as soaring oil prices and the global credit crunch.

Beyond the economy, Lee has been faced with charges of appointing officials with questionable ethics and of heavy-handed leadership (his nickname is "Bulldozer"), which is reflected in efforts to push through a controversial cross-country canal system and an unpopular proposal to privatize the healthcare system. Furthermore, Lee's hardline approach to North Korea—very different from that of his predecessors—has resulted in a popular backlash.

To be sure, as North Korea seemingly snubbed the international community in recent years, there was considerable popular discontent with the previous two administrations' "sunshine" policy, which emphasized peaceful cooperation prior to eventual Korean unification.

But now, with the North's destruction of key elements of its nuclear program, international negotiations appear to be bearing fruit and Lee's tougher stance has gained less approval than might have been anticipated when he came to office.

The combined effect of these developments has been to erode Lee's reputation precipitously. Now, on top of everything, comes the beef controversy. In April, on his first foreign trip following his inauguration, Lee traveled to the US. On the eve of the visit, his government agreed to lift the five-year-old ban on US beef imports as part of efforts to improve bilateral ties following years of up-and-down relations during former South Korean president Roh Moo-hyun's administration. While most in the West applauded Lee's visit, the reaction in South Korea was significantly more negative.

Many in South Korea viewed the beef decision as having been hastily taken, and without appropriate consultation. In addition, significant segments of the population saw the agreement as Lee selling out or kowtowing to the US. The public reaction began with a demonstration in Seoul on May 2 in which hundreds of teenagers held a candlelight vigil. Soon, tens of thousands of South Koreans joined the protests.

Lee seems to have misjudged the strength of his election victory and the currents of opinion in several important ways. Given the nationalist sentiments motivating the beef protesters, the strength of opposition forces and widespread hostility to opening and privatizing the South Korean economy further, Lee, whose authoritarian style of management reminds many of the era of military rule, will now need to move forward carefully.

Lee must reach out to the opposition, both within his party and outside it, to build agreement or negotiate compromise on the contentious issues that his administration faces. He must reach out to the people of South Korea and demonstrate that he is willing to listen to their concerns. Finally, he must act on his campaign promises to build a more prosperous and confident South Korea.

The upside of all this political turmoil is that it demonstrates the vigor of Korean democracy. Lee's task now is to discover how best to take advantage of this new political activism. He has faced political adversity before, and he will again. And, with approval ratings in the single digits, there's nowhere to go but up.

Michael Kulma is Director of Policy Programs at the Asia Society.