South Korea’s 100-day-old cabinet offered to resign en masse on Tuesday, taking responsibility for a string of political miscalculations that have sent support for President Lee Myung-bak’s government tumbling.
Anger over rocketing oil prices and too hasty plans to reopen the market to American beef boiled over into huge anti-government protests around the country onTuesday night.
South Korea is famed for its public outpourings of emotion but these demonstrations, to which organisers were trying to attract 1m people, were noteworthy even by local standards.
The area around the US embassy and the presidential Blue House was on Tuesday barricaded with 40ft shipping containers as police prepared for huge protests, timed to coincide with the 21st anniversary of an uprising that helped install democracy in South Korea.
Han Seung-soo, prime minister, tendered the resignations of the entire cabinet over its handling of the beef issue in particular, and Mr Lee is expected selectively to accept the offers. Local media have reported the agriculture and health ministers are likely to be replaced and possibly the foreign and finance ministers too.
Reopening South Korea’s market to US beef, banned in 2004 following the “mad cow” scare but now declared safe by international health inspectors, has long been expected and is crucial for US congressional approval of a bilateral trade deal signed last year.
But Koreans reacted angrily when Seoul announced in April that it would fully open the market, leading the government to ask the US voluntarily to restrict imports to meat from cows less than 30 months old.
The beef issue has become a nationalist one. “The government keeps saying that US beef is safe but I can’t believe it,” says Kim Joo-hyun, who owns a barbecue restaurant in central Seoul where a banner says “We will refund Won100m ($100,000) to you if the meat we sell is not from a Korean cow”. “I think the president should take responsibility for this one way or the other,” he said.
The subject has become a lightning rod for popular discontent with Mr Lee’s government, which made grand pledges to overhaul the stagnating economy when it took office at the end of February.
“The beef issue served as a trigger for public protests, but the real fundamental problem is [Mr Lee’s] lack of political leadership,” said Choi Jin, director of the Institute of Presidential Leadership.
The government’s first months have been bedevilled with problems – including the admission that high oil prices and slowing global demand mean the economy is likely to grow by only 5 per cent this year, not the 6 per cent Mr Lee promised.
The government on Sunday unveiled a $10.2bn package to cushion the impact of mounting energy costs on South Korea, the world’s fifth-largest oil importer.
The president on Tuesday warned that the country faced a “resources crisis” comparable with the 1970s oil price spike and the 1997 financial crisis.
“International crude oil prices have doubled over a year and grains and raw materials prices are also rising sharply,” he said. “Accordingly, our economy is faced with a serious difficulty, with prices rising and the economy gradually slowing.”