Choe Sang-hun frames the story of the anti-US beef protests for a Western audience in the IHT. Choe’s tale includes a modern version of high schooler Yu Kwan-soon’s leading role in the March 1, 1919 movement:
And the police investigating who organized the country’s biggest antigovernment protests in two decades ended up rummaging in cyberspace. When Lee agreed in April to lift a five-year-old import ban on U.S. beef, despite widespread fears that the meat might not be safe from mad cow disease, it quickly became a hot topic on the Internet, first among teenage girls gathering at fan Web sites for television personalities, and later at Agora, a popular online discussion forum at the Web portal Daum.
There, people suggested that they stop just talking and take to the streets. When a high school student began a petition on Agora calling for Lee’s impeachment, it gathered 1.3 million signatures within a week. The police were caught off-guard on May 2 when thousands of teenagers networking through Agora and coordinating via text messages poured into central Seoul, holding candles and chanting “No to mad cow!”
Did Choe Sang-hun find this fairy tale about high school kids being first to jump the anti-US beef train through Agora ? Does anybody with half a brain and passing awareness of Korea think that it would be teenage girls, rather than the Korean beef industry, unions, and assorted leftist organizations, who would be the first to pounce on the new president for his decision to lift the beef ban after his visit to Camp David?
I spent fifteen minutes searching the archives at demonstrator-friendly Hankyoreh and found pages of stories in which politicians, activists, and experts voiced their opposition to lifting the beef import ban before it was even official. On April 30, prior to the first candlelight vigil, agricultural cooperatives and citizens’ groups were already demonstrating, equipped with banners and colorful signs and costumes. One day later, the Hankyoreh reported that angry citizens were filling 2MB’s Cyworld homepage with angry messages. On May 1, we see in the Hanky a photo of smiling teenagers protesting the possibility of hospitals, army, school cafeterias and fast food outlets using dangerous US beef. (edit:photo was originally taken at a Dec. 2006 demonstration and was used to accompany a May 1 editorial against importing US beef) Finally, on May 2, we have the first mass candlelight vigil, attended by 10,000 citizens of all ages, which, according to Choe, was hardly noticed at first:
The mainstream media and the government ignored them at first. But protesters stepped forward as “citizen reporters,” conducting interviews, taking photographs and, thanks to the country’s high-speed wireless Internet, uploading videos to their blogs and Internet forums.
He’s right that demonstrators effectively used technology – mobile phone cameras, laptops, and other tech toys -to communicate with other demonstrators and citizens in real time. The mainstream media, however, did not miss thousands of people holding candles and descending upon downtown Seoul. The Hankyoreh published its first version at 8 PM that evening while the demonstration was in full swing, and all the other major media outlets wrote long stories with lots of photos of the large crowds that night.
I shouldn’t be too surprised to see Choe Sang-Hun, who collaborated with atrocity-monger Charles Hanley on the Nogun-ri story, retell this legend easily demolished by spending 15 minutes looking over the archives at the Hankyoreh. There was a petition at Agora, but the anti-US beef protests weren’t started by high school students, whose participation was “encouraged” by adults, probably the KTU.
A picture’s worth a thousand words, and story’s accompanying image of a mom and kids holding preprinted placards calling for the explusion of “싸가지” (self-centered) US Ambassador Vershbow and decorated with a cartoonish cow accurately depicts the level of discourse that’s taken place in Korea over the issue of the safety of US beef.
This quote is even more deliciously ironic:
During the Saturday rally, a high school girl took the microphone and said before the crowd: “I drove four hours to join this rally because I don’t want to die.”
I don’t have exact statistics on hand, but with only three documented vCJD cases in the US, all of whom may have been contracted the disease outside the country, I’m pretty sure that spending four hours on a Korean highway is a riskier act than eating a plate of LA galbi.
Buried in Choe’s sympathetic portrayal of the protests is one dissenting view:
But some frown on the mob mentality the Internet can foster. “In the online discussions on beef, you are welcome only if you voice a certain opinion, and you’re attacked if you represent an opposing view,” said Kim, the political scientist. “I doubt the debate is rational.”
That’s quite an understatement.