What’s the Beef in South Korea?

NEW YORK – At the outset of the ongoing violent protests in South Korea over imported beef from the United States, the entire cabinet of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak offered to resign.  Last week, President Lee fired three of them. But beef, it turns out, represents just the tip of the iceberg of grievances against President Lee. Only four months in office, his approval rating is down to single digits.

Lee won the December 2007 election with 48.7% of the vote, having run on the “747” platform, promising 7% annual GDP growth, per capita income of $40,000, and to make Korea the world’s seventh largest economy (up from 13th currently). During his inauguration speech, he vowed to revive the economy, strengthen relations with the US, and deal with North Korea.

So what went wrong?

The economy is slowing – the Bank of Korea cut its growth forecast for this year to 4.7%, while the OECD expects only 4.3% growth – inflation is rising, and some are concerned that Lee’s policies are too geared toward foreign investors and big business. Lee also must confront factors beyond his control, such as soaring oil prices and the global credit crunch.