Wednesday, June 18, 2008

My Beef about the Protests in Korea: A Rambling Rant

Mad Cow Protest
(Image from Wikipedia)

I haven't written much about the ongoing Korean protests against American beef on the fear that it contains the prions that cause mad cow disease, or Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), in cattle and variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD) in humans.

I didn't want to enter the fray because even though I consider the fears irrational, given the extreme unlikelihood of contracting the disease, I didn't have the energy to collect all the wild, baseless rumors about American beef and look into all of the scientific details that would refute them.

A couple of weeks ago, a student asked me what I thought about the beef protests. I replied that the protests weren't really about American beef but about the left trying to manipulate young people in order to damage Lee Myung-bak and his rightwing policies. I added that since so many middle- and high-school students were protesting, they were likely being urged to do so by their leftwing teachers.

I didn't have any proof of this, but I strongly suspected it, for I know from experience how nationalistic and anti-American the leftist high-school teachers are here in Korea. When I was teaching at Hanshin University, I began teaching an evening class in the fall of 2001 for high-school teachers who were seeking a higher degree in education to enhance their teaching careers, and though I knew nothing of their politics or of the teachers' union and its rigorously leftist views, I soon discovered that many of the high-school teachers in my class were strongly anti-American. I've seen this elsewhere in the world, so I ignored it the way that one learns to ignore static when the radio reception is poor.

However, in the class following the 9/11 attacks, the static became much of the broadcast as several of the high-school teachers in my class expressed open satisfaction at the death and destruction. One woman described with a smile how her own husband, also a teacher, had smiled joyously as he watched the Twin Towers fall.

I listened to all of this without betraying any emotion, for I wanted to see how far this would go. There was talk of the 'American Empire' falling, and several in my class seemed ready to support Bin Laden as the American military geared up for war in Afghanistan.

Some of the teachers disagreed, I should add, arguing that the Al Qaeda attack was unjustified.

Most, however, seemed either to hold viscerally anti-American views -- probably stemming from their experience as protesters during the dictatorship of Park Chung-hee, when they blamed the United States for its support of Park -- or to care little that innocent Americans and other foreigners had suffered. Whatever their motives, those with anti-American views appeared hostile to other opinions, so I didn't bother to debate them, but I decided that I would offer a talk on 9/11 sometime in a more-official format, and that decision ultimately bore fruit as a presentation at Hanshin University on the religious roots of 9/11, which I reworked as a published paper: "Striving to Understand 9/11."

Although my Masters class didn't attend, for a year had passed by the time that I gave my talk, which took place on September 11, 2002, the reaction of many in attendance seemed scripted from anti-American positions carved in stone, especially given that this was after a traffic accident in the summer of 2002 in which a US soldier on duty ran over two teenage girls in his tank during military maneuvers because he couldn't see them around the curve as he raced along. Students in middle schools, high schools, and universities, along with the greater Korean left, had protested and spread vicious rumors about the soldier and the US military, calling the soldier a "murderer" and insisting that the 'accident' had been intentional and had been carried out because the US didn't like the leftist policies of President Roh Moo-hyun. I know this personally because that's what one student -- with the agreement of others -- insisted when one of my undergraduate classes wanted to discuss the deaths of the two girls.

From experiences like these with Korean anti-Americanism, I had little taste for arguing over the quality of American beef. I did discuss the issue with my wife, however, and seem to have convinced her that since only three people have died in America from vCJD out of some 300 million Americans, then one has, roughly, only one chance in 100 million of contracting vCJD from American beef -- even assuming that the three who died had contracted the disease from American beef, which they probably did not. I argued that attending the protests against American beef was far, far riskier to one's health than eating American beef. I added that Koreans don't even know if their own, locally produced beef is safer than American beef because they don't test for the disease. But the clincher to my arguments was that American beef is only one-fifth the cost of Korean beef and that many Koreans have to go without beef because they cannot afford the price, but that if American beef were allowed in, these same Koreans could afford beef at a low cost and use their extra money for something else, which would be good for the Korean economy.
"Why are Korean farmers so special?" I asked. "Shouldn't someone be thinking of the Korean consumers, too?"
My wife, being a Korean consumer, suddenly, and fully, agreed with me. I was rather surprised, but it sometimes happens this way.

That's about all that I have to say on the topic, but if you want some logic on American beef, go to Andy Jackson's article, "Rumors, Fear and US Beef," in the Korea Times (6/16/2008), and if you want some information on Korea's anti-American nationalism, go to Philip Bowring's article, "A potent, troubling nationalism," in the International Herald Tribune (6/16/2008).

I just hope that the nationalist emotions don't get out of hand in this country, or we may see more xenophobic attacks of the life-threatening sort that Matt Lamers experienced.

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At 10:59 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read with great interest your paper on 9/11.

Your observations about the extreme militancy of Islamic precepts accord greatly with what I remember of Sam Harris's relatively recent book "The End of Faith".

In regard to Islamic terrorists - or at least the ones who make the headlines in the USA - most are from Arabic-speaking countries, whereas most followers of Islam are from non-Arabic speaking countries, like Indonesia.

So the Islamic terrorism that so exercises the USA and its allies, may have more to do with Arab nationalism, than with Islam, albeit that this Arab nationalism masquerades under the guise of Islam.

Regarding the softening of militant Islam in Iran, this may have more to do with the dynamics of revolutionary movements generally, than with Shiite Islam.

If we look at the communist revolutions of Russia and China, we see that they were at their most extreme for three or four decades after the revolutions.Then they began to reform in response to the values and aspirations of the succeeding generations.

Therefore, with three decades having passed since Khomeini took power in Iran, we might expect to see an amelioration of the revolutionary hardline Islam of Khomeini and his cohorts.

So we shouldn't therefore be surprised that this is now happening.

At 12:30 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Caroline. Those are cogent remarks.

I think that Islamism is largely a form of Arab nationalism, now that you put it that way, for Islam itself, in its classical texts, is a form of Arab nationalism . . . though that's not quite the term for it, for there was no 'nationalism' when Islam began, but Islam can be understood as imposing an Arab identity upon all Muslims (though it was also a new identity for Arabs at its inception).

Al Qaeda wants an international movement, but the rigid Islam that it imposes repels all who suffer under it, including Arab Muslims themselves, as the Al Qaeda debacle in Iraq's Anbar Province reveals.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:36 PM, Blogger Hathor said...

Mad cow disease crosses my mind every time I buy beef, which is every shopping period. I don't exactly trust that the beef is tested often enough. I actually have to worry about the e-coli that shows up in hamburger and spinach and salmonella in eggs and tomatoes, because prodcers are taking shortcuts in hygiene. Salmonella is now in the reproductive system of chickens.

Food is getting expensive here in the US and with fuel prices going up, its being recommended to eat locally. Is our beef being discounted for overseas? I can't see it remaining cheaper than Korean beef when it travels over 12,000 miles. I know! Bean counters determined the price as they manipulate the market.

At 12:57 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I don't know about the beef prices in the States, Hathor, but the price of Korean beef here in Korea is very high, and I doubt that American beef is discounted. In fact, the middlemen probably mark it up appreciably.

Of course, with higher fuel costs, American beef prices here in Korea could easily go up.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:06 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Jeffery, I'm new to your blog.
My understanding is Koreans want to protect their control of the food and water infrastructure in Korea. They know there is a price to pay: higher beef prices. Yet, it's a small price to pay for national sovereignty. Koreans understand the best way to wrap a country around one's little finger is to squeeze out, and control another's food and water supply. Global inter-dependence behind the "feel good" ideology means external control and manipulation by outsiders. All successful warfare begins with seductive trade-agreements leading to gradual control of food and water supplies. Please respect Korea's instinct for sovereignty and freedom. At one time, even you Americans cherished this hope. Don't belittle those who still cling to this noble ideal.

At 1:39 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Anonymous, thanks for the comment.

I don't think that I'm belittling any noble ideals. What I do find ridiculous are the wild rumors spread about American beef.

As for your statement:

"All successful warfare begins with seductive trade-agreements leading to gradual control of food and water supplies."

All successful warfare? This is surely an overstatement, and anyway, I see little likelihood that America intends to declare war on South Korea.

Moreover, Korea is not food-sufficient anyway, and could not be without extreme measures that would be bad for the economy. Look at North Korea for an example of the quest for extreme autonomy.

Besides, Korea is dependent upon exports for its own economy to function, and if Koreans close their markets to foreign goods, this might trigger the closure of overseas markets to Korean goods.

I don't see that last eventuality as positive at all.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Uh Jeff,

I'm uncertain as to whether I'm helpful or not. Disregard my comment or delete as necessary. Caroline seems very particularly insightful.

With the one exception, Indonesia.

In some respects I liken Indonesia to the Phillippines (PI) big, bunch of widespread island "entities" that prior to tsunami had many divergent, oh I guess, "outlooks."

Many, well quite a few divergent views on what the separate goals of each large, seemingly autonomous populations actually wanted (in the Democratic sense). On the one hand the "sort-of" unanimous hardliner approach, force Aceh for instance into "the fold." On the other, the moderate view, limited autonomy.

There are some very fundamental and too obvious differences between the two nations. History. To a lesser extent (at least locally-geography) Indonesia is (yes) straddled by China and India. India has the most effective naval force, but China has the most "reason."

Straits of Molluca. Other stuff. I'm uncertain whether "reason" is a guiding factor, except insofar as the Olympics are concerned. I know, pretty obtuse and elliptical (but is this the first time "Gypsy" has observed thusly?)

Just my opinion but I'm not sure, indeed I'm very uncertain, that I agree with Caroline in two specific areas.

Indonesia has a history of trying to work things out. By my posting this simple comment I realize I put my own judgment "to the test." But there is a whole bunch of geography involved.

My other point? Lotta disagreemnt and really, when it comes down to receiving aid in whatever form: one route only.


At 3:47 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, JK. I wasn't sure what the reference to "aid" meant. Otherwise, clear enough.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 4:33 PM, Blogger John B said...


Maintaining an agricultural base is certainly vital to long-term security. But there are other ways than just protecting markets, and it's a shame to waste the power of the current globalized market.

The US agricultural producers, for example, are heavily subsidized. And the government has set a price floor on milk, I think.

Subsidies are expensive, it's true, but Korea is forecasting 0.6% growth to GDP per year as a direct result of the KORUS-FTA. Maybe some of the extra money could be kicked to the farmers.

Also, in the US there are a lot of experimental farming systems being examined as well, like agro-ecological design.

There are alternatives and compromises, which no one is talking about.

At 5:11 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Personally, I'm against subsidies for American farmers. Subsidized agriculture in the US and the EU closes off markets to cheaper agricultural products from, e.g., African nations.

I say this despite my many relatives who farm back home in the Ozarks.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I am so glad to hear you recount your experiences of Koreans spouting schadenfreud comments after 9/11. This topic has come up on TMH and other blogs, and each time, ethnic Koreans express disbelief, claiming that they and their friends were shocked and felt sympathy. I heard and read the same schadenfreud that you did. There is a strong undercurrent of anti-Americanism that bubbles to the surface, not only when America or Americans are perceived to have done something wrong, such as the tank accident, but even when some natural or man-made disaster befalls the US. Even the Chosun Ilbo was so appalled by the response that it published an editorial titled "For Those Who Beautify Terrorism." This editorial was in Korean, not English, so clearly it was aimed at a domestic audience.

In times of trouble, you find out who your real friends are. The British parliament sang our National Anthem in solidarity. Canadians all over their vast nation flew our Stars and Stripes. Many Koreans cheered the death and destruction on our soil. Koreans are not a mean-spirited people, but they do harbor a huge chip of envy and resentment of the US, one important reason why we need to re-evaluate our military presence. It is a major stimulus of that resentment, and if the very unlikely possibility of a military conflict should break out, do we want our soldiers to risk their lives defending a country that does not feel warmly towards us?

Caroline noted that most of the headline-making Islamic terrorists are Arabs and wondered if so-called Islamic terrorism was in fact an Arab nationalist movement. It is ironic that she cited Indonesia as the world's most populous Muslim nation, for the Indonesian government, as many know, has been battling domestic and international Islamist terrorist organizations, including the group that killed more than 200 people in the Bali bombings of 2002 and 2005 plus the attack on the luxury hotel in Jakarta. Malaysia has also cracked down on domestic and international terrorist groups.

At 10:53 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Like you, Jeffery, I oppose subsidies. They encourage unhealthy eating and put small farmers at a disadvantage because most of our subsidy dollars go to large agricultural organizations for beef, milk, and cash crops like soy, corn, and wheat. One reason junk food and fast food are cheaper than vegetables is that the former are made from subsidized agricultural products. Even worse is that some subsidies are paid to "farmers" NOT to grow certain crops; some of these "farmers" are real estate developers.

At 4:09 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

since only three people have died in America from vCJD out of some 300 million Americans, then one has, roughly, only one chance in 100 million of contracting vCJD from American beef

Actually, all three of those cases are thought to have been contracted outside the US. Quoted from the CDC:

Three cases of vCJD have been reported from the United States. By convention, variant CJD cases are ascribed to the country of initial symptom onset, regardless of where the exposure occurred. There is strong evidence that suggests that two of the three cases were exposed to the BSE agent in the United Kingdom and that the third was exposed while living in Saudi Arabia.

The first patient was born in the United Kingdom in the late 1970's and lived there until a move to Florida in 1992. The patient had onset of symptoms in November 2001 and died in June of 2004. The patient never donated or received blood, plasma, or organs, never received human growth hormone, nor did the patient ever have major surgery other than having wisdom teeth extracted in 2001. Additionally, there was no family history of CJD.

The second patient resided in Texas during 2001-2005. Symptoms began in early 2005 while the patient was in Texas. He then returned to the United Kingdom, where his illness progressed, and a diagnosis of variant CJD was made. The diagnosis was confirmed neuropathologically at the time of the patient's death. While living in the United States, the patient had no history of hospitalization, of having invasive medical procedures, or of donation or receipt of blood and blood products. The patient almost certainly acquired the disease in the United Kingdom. He was born in the United Kingdom and lived there throughout the defined period of risk (1980-1996) for human exposure to the agent of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, commonly known as "mad cow" disease). His stay in the United States was too brief relative to what is known about the incubation period for variant CJD.

The third patient was born and raised in Saudi Arabia and has lived in the United States since late 2005. The patient occasionally stayed in the United States for up to 3 months at a time since 2001 and there was a shorter visit in 1989. The patient's onset of symptoms occurred in Spring 2006. In late November 2006, the Clinical Prion Research Team at the University of California San Francisco Memory and Aging Center confirmed the vCJD clinical diagnosis by pathologic study of adenoid and brain biopsy tissues. The patient has no history of receipt of blood, a past neurosurgical procedure, or residing in or visiting countries of Europe. Based on the patient's history, the occurrence of a previously reported Saudi case of vCJD attributed to likely consumption of BSE-contaminated cattle products in Saudi Arabia, and the expected greater than 7 year incubation period for food-related vCJD, this U.S. case-patient was most likely infected from contaminated cattle products consumed as a child when living in Saudi Arabia (1). The patient has no history of donating blood and the public health investigation has identified no known risk of transmission to U.S. residents from this patient.

At 4:46 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Sonagi, yes there was definitely that reaction of Shadenfreude -- but also of something worse, a misplaced desire to see America fail in its fight against terrorism, misplaced because much of the world, including South Korea, has a lot to lose if the US fails. I'm currently reading Philip Bobbitt's tome Terror and Consent: The Wars for the Twenty-First Century, which deals with this issue, and I'll report on it at some point.

Thanks for the note on subsidies, for I didn't know the link to cheap junk food.

As for your point about the cases of vCJD -- "Actually, all three of those cases are thought to have been contracted outside the US" -- yes, I realized that, which is why I added, "even assuming that the three who died had contracted the disease from American beef, which they probably did not," for I also read the report that you cite (and other reports).

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:13 PM, Blogger Lee said...

I've eaten with a number of recently arrived Korean international students here in LA, and not one of them expressed even a slightest of reservations about eating beef. One person lamented about how "our country is obsessed with protests".

I often wonder if most Koreans actually recognize the anti beef movement for the charade that it is, but remain silent fearing a backlash. I imagine a good amount of the population are in contact with friends, cousins or family members well rooted in America, and most Korean Americans are either amused or aghast at what's happening in their motherland.

Some rational Koreans (ones who acknowledge the near impossibility of MDC infection) are concerned about the "20-30 yr incuabtion period". MDC is believed to be dormant in humans for for a long time, but we haven't witnessed an outbreak among American senior citizens who regularly consusmed beef in the 60's or the 70's. Since then we eliminated some of the unsafe feeding practices thought to increase the likelihood of MDC infection on cows.

At 9:57 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Lee, for the comments.

I think that the anti-beef protests have been manipulated by the left here in Korea as an attempt to harm the right, which hasn't helped the American-beef case much through Lee Myung-bak's inability to sway public opinion.

Those most harmed by the propaganda -- aside from the middle- and high-school students, whose views have been distorted -- are the Korean consumers, about whom the left cares less than it cares about regaining power.

Maybe this will all blow over...

Jeffery Hodges

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