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Latest update : 2008-08-05

US president George W. Bush faces a dual welcome in Seoul: the conservative government's pro-US message risks being drowned out by ongoing street protests against US beef imports.


U.S. President George W. Bush is to begin his scheduled three-stop visit to south-east Asia in Seoul, amid a simmering controversy sparked by the Korean government’s decision to end a 2003 ban on US beef imports. More than 20,000 policemen have been deployed to control street protests in downtown Seoul, both for and against Bush's policies, that threaten to drown out the visit’s intended message.


Bush is to meet with South Korea’s new, pro-American president Lee Myung-Bak for the third time since their first summit at Camp David last April. “The visit aims at stressing the overall strength of the alliance between Washington and Seoul, which is one of the new conservative government’s main policy lines” says Olivier Thomas, FRANCE 24 correspondent in Seoul.


Topping the agenda is the prickly issue of North Korean nuclear disarmament. While Pyonyang’s ties with Washington have been slowly warming, its relations with Seoul are stone-cold following the killing of a South Korean housewife in the North’s Mount Kumgang resort in July, after she strayed into a military area.


Seoul may ask Washington to refrain from striking North Korea from a list of state-sponsors of terrorism, a long-held demand from Pyonyang. Bush has announced his intention to remove North Korea from the list on August 11 if the North agrees to procedures for verifying a declaration of its nuclear programmes.


“The US beef issue is a catalyst for progressive Korean’s discontent with the current government


Also on the agenda will be efforts by both presidents to have their legislatures approve a bilateral free-trade agreement (FTA) aiming to increase trade between the two countries by 25%. It is unlikely, however, that the FTA be ratified before the end of Bush’s term.


Originally intended to pave the way for the FTA, Lee’s decision to resume imports of US beef sparked months of massive, sometimes violent, rallies in the South Korean capital. South Koreans widely believe US beef carries mad-cow disease, despite the extra sanitary safeguards promised by their government.


“The US-beef issue has become a catalyst for progressive Korean’s discontent with the current government. President Lee’s approval rating has plummeted below 20%, a first in Korean history” says Thomas.


Under these circumstances, Bush’s call for a bigger South-Korean troop contribution in Afghanistan may not be met favourably, as Lee tries to soothe public opinion’s hostility.


Bush’s final stop in South Korea will be a visit to U.S troops based in the country, another bone of contention for left-wing Koreans.

Date created : 2008-08-05