Generational Dynamics: Forecasting America's Destiny Generational
 Forecasting America's Destiny ... and the World's


Generational Dynamics Web Log for 12-Jun-2008
South Korea's government in crisis over beef imports from U.S.

Web Log - June, 2008

South Korea's government in crisis over beef imports from U.S.

Hundreds of thousands of Koreans held candlelight demonstrations in Seoul on Tuesday, the largest yet of the protests that began a month ago.

Hundreds of thousands of Koreans hold candlelight demonstrations in Seoul <font face=Arial size=-2>(Source: Seoul Times)</font>
Hundreds of thousands of Koreans hold candlelight demonstrations in Seoul (Source: Seoul Times)

The demonstration was dubbed "1 Million-People Candle-Light March" by the organizers, and commemorated the "June 10th Uprising" that occurred on June 10, 1987, when the people staged massive riots and brought down the military government in favor of new elections.

The demonstrations were triggered shortly after Korea's new President, Lee Myung-Bak, took office on February 25. Lee's approval ratings were quite high, as he prepared to meet with George Bush at Camp David on April 19.

Then the roof fell in. Just before the meeting, Lee agreed to lift a five-year-old ban on American beef imports, first imposed in 2003 after a single case of mad cow disease was discovered in the United States.

The demonstrations began on May 2, when hundreds of uniformed schoolgirls held candles in downtown Seoul. The demonstrations kept growing, and by this week, they became so huge that Lee's cabinet offered to resign, putting the entire government into crisis.

The puzzling question is: What the heck is going on? Apparently no one seriously believes that they'll get mad cow disease from American beef, inasmuch as Americans eat American beef all the time. And anyway, even if Korea imports American beef, no one has to buy it or eat it.

The demonstrations don't even seem to be particularly anti-American. As one person commented online, "This is why you never see any anti-US slogans in these protests. The issue is really about Lee Myung Bak and his policies."

So what are these huge demonstrations all about? No one seems to be really certain.

From euphoria to panic

Generational Dynamics studies the attitudes and behaviors of large masses of people, entire generations of people. Any mass change in behavior or attitudes always attracts my attention for study, and that includes episodes of mass euphoria and mass panic. This incident appears to include both.

Consider the following description from a news story:

"The scenes Tuesday illuminated the dramatic shift in President Lee's political fortunes. When he was elected last December, South Koreans hailed him as a long-awaited leader who could salvage their country's alliance with the United States, which was strained under Lee's left-leaning predecessor, Roh Moo Hyun. ...

Aging South Koreans who fought alongside U.S. troops in the Korean War in the early 1950s, took to the streets in joy. They trusted Lee to save the country from what they called "leftist, anti-U.S. and pro-North Korean elements," such as Roh.

On the eve of the meeting with Bush, Seoul agreed to lift a five-year-old ban on American beef imports, first imposed in 2003 after a case of mad cow disease was discovered in the United States. The gesture demonstrated Lee's eagerness to rebuild ties with Washington.

He apparently did not anticipate the reaction at home, especially among younger South Koreans, who had been watching him coldly.

"What he did was little different from an ancient Korean king offering tribute to a Chinese emperor," said Kim Sook Yi, a 35-year-old homemaker who joined the Tuesday protest. "This time we give a tribute to Washington? It's humiliating, bad for education for Korean children."

The demonstrations that began on May 2, when hundreds of uniformed schoolgirls held candles in downtown Seoul, quickly snowballed. By this week, they became so huge that Lee's cabinet offered to resign.

To many South Koreans, the beef dispute was not entirely about health or science. Nor is it entirely about economics; U.S. beef is half the price of Korean. Rather, it is the latest test of whether their leaders can resist pressure from superpowers like the United States, even if that pressure is legitimate, as is the case in the beef dispute. South Korea had promised to lift the ban once the World Organization for Animal Health ruled American beef fit for consummation, as it did in September.

South Korea has built the world's 13th largest economy largely through exports. Still, in a country that has been invaded by bigger neighbors throughout its history, people harbor a deep suspicion about big powers, even allies like the United States.

Koreans in their 40s remember a childhood song handed down from their fathers and grandfathers: "Don't be cheated by the Soviets. Don't trust the Americans. Or the Japanese will rise again." Koreans still chafe at the fact that the United States and the Soviet Union divided Korea into the Communist North and the pro-U.S. South after liberating it from Japanese colonial rule at the end of World War II.

Whether a South Korean leader can navigate such nationalistic sentiment can make or break his career."

None of this makes much sense in rational terms, but it does describe massive changes in generational attitudes:

This is a somewhat contradictory set of reactions to something that really isn't that much of a big deal. Even if it was the first time in a long time that a Korean head of state visited the American president, it still doesn't deserve this kind of extremely emotional reaction on all sides.

The 58 year hypothesis

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58 Year Hypothesis
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The street demonstrations are commemorating the 21st anniversary of 1987 student uprising, as we said, but they're commemorating something else as well:

It was 58 years ago in June, 1950, when the North Koreans attacked Seoul. The world was shocked when the Russian-supplied North Korean People's Army swept south and overwhelmed both South Korean and U.S. forces stationed there, killing and imprisoning many civilians and causing massive starvation.

I've discussed the "58 year hypothesis" several times on this web site. Briefly, it goes as follows: If a disastrous national event occurs, it particularly traumatizes the 5-10 year old children, who remember its horrors for the rest of their lives. 58 years later, when that group reaches age 63-68, and are in senior management positions throughout the country, they cause a panic, often a "false panic."

I don't claim to know exactly how it works, or how the various generational interactions occur, but I do know that I now have sufficiently many very clear examples of such panics that the 58-year hypothesis has to be taken seriously. Some examples include the 1987 stock market panic (58 years after the 1929 crash), the 1976 swine flu fiasco (58 years after the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic), and Israel's 2006 panicked war on Hizbollah (58 years after the 1949 genocidal war between Jews and Arabs). There are a number of other examples as well. What all of these examples have in common is an almost totally irrational panic, triggered by some relatively unimportant event.

What's going on today in Seoul seems to fit the 58-year hypothesis. The dancing in the streets is odd, the over-reaction to lifting the beef imports is odd, and the concern about the American betrayal is odd. All of these concerns relate strongly to the June, 1950, North Korean invasion. Even the beef issue relates to the starvation that occurred in 1950.

For those interested in historical research, the 58 year hypothesis is a potential source of many, many thesis topics. For those inclined to such research, be sure to observe the methodological proscriptions regarding "cherry-picking" that I discussed in a previous article.

Future of South Korea

As we approach the Clash of Civilizations world war, we've been trying, on this web site, to identify which countries will be among the American "Allies," and which countries will comprise the enemy "Axis." We do this by looking at long-term trends in attitudes and behaviors of the masses of people in each country.

Among the likely Allies we have Taiwan, Japan, India, Russia, Israel and Britain. I still consider Iran a likely Western ally for reasons I've stated before. Among the likely Axis countries, we'll have China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, and other Sunni Muslim countries.

But what about South Korea? It's easy to identify trends in the other countries, but it's very hard for South Korea.

This is a country with major conflicting loyalties:

This makes it very difficult to detect a trend one way or the other for South Korea. If the people were forced to choose one side or the other in a war, which side would it be? Based on the information I have today, I don't see a clear direction, and it may actually still be dependent on chaotic events that cannot be predicted. For example, some incident involving Japan might push them towards China, while a North Korean attack might push them toward the West. (12-Jun-2008) Permanent Link
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