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  • The Resumption of the Import of US Beef and the Direction for the Ratification of the ROK–US FTA

The Resumption of the Import of US Beef and the Direction for the Ratification of the ROK–US FTA

|Korean Peninsula

The improvement of relations with the United States, the linchpin of the foreign policy of the new administration in the ROK, and the National Assembly’s ratification of the ROK–US FTA, have foundered. This is because the resistance of the public and the opposition to the resumption of the import of US beef has been rising by the day. First of all the negotiations for and voting on the ROK–US FTA and the problem of import restrictions on beef should have been separate matters. Now, however, both problems have inseparably become the greatest concern for the administration. For the opposition there is an uncompromising stance of not agreeing at all to the National Assembly’s ratification of the ROK–US FTA in order for there not to be a renegotiation of the negotiations on the resumption of beef imports at the very least.

The ROK, immediately following a spate of occurrences of BSE in the United States in December 2003, totally prohibited the import of US beef. Subsequently from March 2006, they would not permit the import of meat from cattle less than 30 months old which had not had the bones and specified risk material (SRM) removed. Even after the completion of the agreement of the ROK–US FTA on 2 April of last year, there was a series of admixtures of beef on the bone from cattle 30 months or older, and the ROK side which had repeatedly been sending meat back and making halts to quarantine, recognizing the 22 May 2007 judgment of the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE)—which determines safety criteria for livestock—that the United States and Canada were controlled risk countries for mad cow disease, announced revised negotiations on import hygiene provisions. Just at that point on 29 July last year, because parts of the vertebral column, which is a specified risk material for BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy), were found in beef imported from the United States, the ROK suspended quarantine for US beef, and although the import of US beef was possible, because it was not able to pass through quarantine it came not to appear on the market.

Coming as no surprise, and bound to be conveyed, the ROK side demanded an investigation to get to the truth and measures to prevent any recurrence in the United States, and lodged a strong protest with the United States embassy in the ROK regarding a policy of continuing its suspension of quarantine measures unless the United States took sufficient measures. On 29 August last year, however, Susan Schwab, the United States Trade Representative (USTR), while calling for the early total elimination of import criteria for US beef, naming the three countries of Japan, the ROK and China, also demonstrated her recognition that the conclusion of the beef problem would become a condition for getting approval of Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) in Congress. With such strict demands, this is why the problem of the approval by the legislatures of the ROK–US FTA, already agreed inter-governmentally, has got entangled in the problem of beef imports.

The ROK side, however, even at the stage of negotiations in October last year, took the position of also maintaining the age restriction of cattle less than 30 months old, except for the seven SRMs and by-products of cattle, including the internal organs and the tail, but the United States didn’t accept it. Subsequently, they attempted a settlement at renegotiations on the eve of the ROK President’s visit to the United States, resulting from a proposal for renegotiations by the US side, and they agreed to the stepwise elimination of the import restriction measures; at the summit with the US President, they called for efforts toward agreeing to the ratification of the FTA by the legislatures of both countries. They also applied the judgment that the import restrictions on US beef would be the greatest obstructing factor in the ratification of the ROK–US FTA by the US Congress.

It became clear that many problems, however, were intertwined within the details to which both governments agreed for the resumption of imports. First, a provision to immediately halt imports has not been included (in the case of the initial disclosure, quarantine is continued, and in the case of a second consecutive disclosure, quarantine is halted only for the establishment concerned, and imports, however, are recommenced), even if mad cow disease or human mad cow disease occurs, unless the OIE regulations are violated. That is, in the case of cattle less than 30 months old, it means that products that contain up to five of the seven SRMs are permitted, and that they have abandoned the sovereignty over quarantine stipulated in the WTO rules to protect the food safety of their own citizens which should be prioritized by the OIE regulations. Second, even though the measures prohibiting feed have been strengthened, except for the brain and spinal cords from cattle 30 months or older, five types of SRM are permitted as ingredients for feed. Third, via recognizing the equivalence to the US hygiene system (checks on cattle-processing plants), it is not the other country which carries out, by individual establishment, the approval of establishments for US beef exports, but has been entrusted to the US government. The approval of equivalence to the observance of OIE standards, after agreement had already been reached on the ROK–US FTA, is something which the US Agricultural Policy Advisory Committee, via the USTR, had been urging.

Subsequently, the government, which faced a backlash in the political sphere—including the general public and the opposition—and redemanded negotiations, taking the form of additional discussion and not renegotiation, clearly specified the sovereignty over quarantine of import suspension and quarantining by saying “in the case of a renewed occurrence of BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy, mad cow disease) in the United States, the ROK will suspend imports”, and regarding specified risk material also, it announced that it had agreed with the United States on the adding of the matter of “pplication of the same regulations as for United States domestic consumption, and prohibition of imports of four kinds of material, including peripheral parts of the vertebral column”. It was the maximum measure which tackled the spreading of the anxiety toward US beef imports. Because it did not incorporate the “prohibition of beef imports from cattle 30 months or older” which the opposition demanded, however, the demands for renegotiation increased daily.

The government, however, based on the report upon its return home of the on-site inspection team for the investigation of US exports, on the premise of constructing support for domestic cattle farms, OIE-approved measures, and measures for strengthening the display of the place of production of imported meat, reached a final notification of the renewed import hygiene provisions for US cattle and the products thereof. According to these new import hygiene provisions, at the beginning of June imports would begin after quarantine of all cattle and the products thereof, except for the tonsils (behind the tongue) and the distal ileum (the end of the small intestine) from cattle less than 30 months, and the seven kinds of SRM from cattle 30 months or older. Naturally, SRM where the age in months could not be confirmed would be sent back, and this matter would be seen as equivalent to further demanding of the US side the display of the age in months of SRM, which is not in the import provisions.

With the national government in confusion over the problem of the resumption of beef imports as in the above, the outstanding issue of the ratification of the ROK–US FTA—down to the final day of the session of the 17th National Assembly—has become a problem for the next National Assembly. If the US side also—with the presidential candidate backed by the Democratic Party demanding opposition to or revision of the ROK–US FTA—were to enter into renegotiations for the automobile sector, as though the groups that stood to gain from the resumption of imports of beef are in control of these opposition forces, then a worst-case scenario is predicted for both countries. In the case of the ratification of the ROK–US FTA being delayed, the ROK would as a matter of course lose all the initially hoped-for economic benefits, including exports to the United States, attraction of investment, and employment creation, and would also lose the opportunity for the improvement of the competitiveness of service industries; the level of international confidence in it would fall, and it would be placed into a disadvantageous position at the negotiations for the ROK–Japan and ROK–China FTAs also. The ROK has learnt various lessons from the problem of the resumption of beef imports this time around, including how important the matter, of which previously it had had no experience, of protecting food hygiene and safety is. It will be something that will be greatly brought into play in future negotiations for trade with other nations. The next National Assembly, via tackling the bill for the ratification of the ROK–US FTA earlier than the United States, should put carefully-considered pressure on not just the US side and its domestic producers, but also on consumers. Through protectionism the renaissance of the United States will only grow more distant.

[Translated by ERINA]