2008 rallies haunt Lee
The case of mad cow disease found last week in a dairy cow in California reminds all of what happened four years ago in the early stages of the Lee Myung-bak administration _ public fear on the safety of American beef being stoked through social media in their infancy.
It threatened to topple the government with tens of thousands demonstrating on a daily basis, resulting in clashes between police and protestors.
Now through smartphones, social media, which were not readily available, can spread rumors faster than Internet tools such as online forums or text messages which were used back then.
In 2008, Korea was polarized after the government decided to resume the import of U.S. beef since it was suspended in 2003 following a mad cow disease case in the United States.
Compared with 2008, the situation facing the Lee administration is more unfavorable, given access to sophisticated technology is easier than four years ago.
Nearly 10 million Koreans are using such social media such as Facebook or Twitter.
An increase in the number of smartphone users makes it easier for them to log on to their accounts.
The development of technology has become a headache for policymakers here when facing situations like this because insanity and baseless stories can spread faster.
With the level of social media and their tools at their rudimentary stage four years ago, the President saw his honeymoon period cut short after hundreds of thousands of protestors took to the streets for nearly two months calling for an import ban. His approval ratings nosedived afterwards.
A variety of rumors and unconfirmed information of mad cow disease had spread fast through the Internet. Baseless stories were produced and reproduced through online chat rooms and forums as bloggers posted unconfirmed stories on mad cow disease.
One of the stories said the disease was water-born and therefore one can be infected through tap water. Once infected, another story goes, people would die with several holes appearing in their brains.
These tales were forwarded to their friends or coworkers through text messages.
The situation got out of control as teenagers joined the anti-U.S. beef rallies after school. According to data, nearly 70 percent of protestors were middle and high school students. These young activists turned out for the candlelit vigils for they were concerned about their health.
The trauma still haunts Lee. He learned the lesson from the bitter experience that he has to play on two levels. One is with the U.S. government, and the other is with domestic consumers.
Rationality dominates negotiations with foreign governments like the United States. As South Korea has not imported beef from dairy cows and cows aged 30 months or older, the government finds it difficult to make a case for an import ban.
The California cow infected with mad cow disease was a dairy cow aged over 10 years old.
The government maintained the position that the majority of foreign countries importing U.S. beef have not imposed an import ban after the California cow was infected with mad cow disease, a move that can justify its position.