After only 100 days in office, South Korean president Lee Myung-bak, who was elected to the office by the highest margin of victory ever, has seen his approval numbers plummet below 20 percent because of a single striking issue: He agreed to let American beef from cows older than 30 months into South Korea. It’s sort of shocking to see how scared South Koreans are of our cows, and how unconcerned Americans are. I’d wager that the safety of our beef isn’t a campaign topic here before November.

In April, before a Camp David summit with President Bush, Lee agreed to lift the ban on beef from older cows, which was imposed after a mad cow scare. (U.S. beef was banned entirely for three years after 2003, and until April South Korea still only allowed in boneless beef; the new pact lets in all cuts.) Lee was apparently oblivious to how this was polling: South Koreans were outraged by the decision and took to the streets, holding candlelight vigils and massive rallies in Seoul’s center—38,000 people this past Saturday. According to the Guardian, many South Koreans are terrified:

Rumours have circulated over the internet in this highly digitally connected country. There were stories that cheap US beef was destined for schoolchildren or that people could die by tasting just 3 grams of older US beef, stoking a collective hysteria that the government has been helpless to stop.

Now Lee’s finally backing away from his commitment: He’s asked the U.S. to voluntarily block beef that’s older than 30 months. The South Korean appetite for beef is huge—at $850 million, the third-largest market for American exporters—so Lee’s getting his way, at least partially. Leading beef companies have agreed to temporarily “add labels showing whether their beef came from animals over or under 30 months of age in a bid to help ease concerns among South Koreans.”

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