What happened
The entire cabinet of recently inaugurated South Korean President Lee Myung-bak offered to resign after weeks of protests over Lee’s move to ease U.S. beef import restrictions. Lee lifted the country’s five-year-old ban in April to remove U.S. congressional obstacles to a pending U.S.-Korea free trade pact. Korean protesters, worried about mad cow disease, accuse Lee of compromising Korea’s health. His approval ratings had dropped below 20 percent. (Bloomberg)

What the commentators said
Lee won a “landslide victory in December,” said Moon Ihlwan in BusinessWeek.com, and his fall in popular support “has been swifter than anything ever experienced by a Korean President.” This “beef brouhaha” now threatens his entire slate of “pro-business reforms,” and as he looks to calm “the angry public,” his options aren’t great. Trying to scrap or renegotiate the trade pact could lead to anything from U.S. auto tariffs to “a full-blown trade war.”

“If he falters now” in his push for liberalization and better U.S. ties, said The Wall Street Journal in an editorial, he won’t get a second chance. Korea needs this trade deal to revive its “moribund economy,” and the public “agitation will fade away.” It is really the “country’s powerful agricultural lobby on beef” that is upset by the imports, and regular Koreans will soon tire of “engaging in their favorite sport: street protests.”

Don’t bet on it, said James Vesely in The Seattle Times. “Koreans are a beef-eating people,” and they want their meat. But they are increasingly skeptical about the benefits of globalization, and they are angry over Lee’s “perceived sellout” to Washinton. The protesters “feel they’ve been sold out at their dining-room table for a larger trade deal that will make a few people rich.”