Skip to main content

Foot-and-mouth disease spooks South Koreans

By CNN's Jiyeon Lee
Hwang In-shik, a farmer for 25 years in South Korea, disinfects his farm twice a day.
Hwang In-shik, a farmer for 25 years in South Korea, disinfects his farm twice a day.
  • South Korea battles its largest-ever outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease
  • 3 million cattle culled in effort to halt spread of disease
  • Government heavily criticized for initial response to outbreak
  • Farmers devastated by cull, question if vaccine on healthy livestock will work

Seoul (CNN) -- A South Korean farmer for 15 years, Sa Taek-hwan, lost his livelihood overnight.

Despite continual disinfecting efforts, he says his 169 cattle fell victim to foot-and-mouth disease last year, and like so many other farmers across the country, he had to have them killed. Now he lives on an empty farm with his wife.

Sa's cows lie in a burial site not far from his home, but he thinks he has it easier than others. "Some have them buried right on their farm," he says. Sa is grateful he doesn't have to face that scene every day.

"These cows were like my family. Do you think anyone would want to come here and look at them buried like this?" the farmer says as he stands in front of the mass grave. "It makes me really sad."

Animals buried alive in South Korea?

Foot-and-mouth disease is a highly communicable disease that affects cattle, swine, sheep, goats, and other animals. South Korea has been battling its largest-ever outbreak of the disease since November.

The government has been vaccinating livestock across the country and more than 3 million animals have been culled in an effort to halt the spread of the disease. But concerns remain. A largely disheartened population of farmers is struggling to overcome their losses and they remain uncertain about the future.

Sa is lost without his cattle. Liquor bottles are piled up in one corner of the farm. "There's nothing else to do," Sa says.

These cows were like my family. Do you think anyone would want to come here and look at them buried like this?
--Farmer Sa Taek-hwan

"I'm worried that something like this might happen again. I've seen others go through diseases like brucella, but this is the first time that I've experienced something like this," Sa says on his now-empty farm in Paju, just two hours north of Seoul.

So far, he has received $11,000 dollars compensation from the government. He says he will try to breed more cattle and rebuild his life.

The South Korean government was heavily criticized for its initial response to the outbreak, with some saying they were slow to act and that they lacked a plan for burial procedures. The agriculture ministry admitted there had been difficulties in regional offices and said there is the need for a more comprehensive plan to deal with an outbreak of this kind.

Some farming communities are worried about the environmental impact of the burial sites in their neighborhood. The agriculture ministry has rejected some claims of blood and fat leaking from mass graves and into water supplies.

The ministry says there are no confirmed cases of water contamination so far and that burial sites will be monitored carefully to ensure the safety of drinking water.

South Korea recently committed roughly $247 million to provide additional water supply facilities to areas concerned about leakage and has also opened a hotline for foot-and-mouth-related environmental emergencies.

The agriculture ministry hopes to have the disease under control by early March. But the outbreak has created a wide sense of distrust in the government within the farming community.

Farmers who have escaped a full-out culling of their livestock question whether the vaccine on healthy livestock will work and continue to take extra precautions.

In Paju city, farmer Hwang In-shik is lucky enough to have kept the disease at bay from his 180 cattle. Hwang, who heads the local office of the Hanwoo Association -- a beef breeder's group -- says the city has lost 87% of its cattle.

Hwang has vaccinated his cattle twice but is taking no risks. He continues to disinfect his farm twice a day and hasn't been home since last December.

"I've heard that on other farms even after vaccination they have seen some outbreaks, so I'm worried about the safety and feel uncertain about the effects of the vaccine," Hwang says.

He believes the government is playing catch-up in dealing with the disease, but is even more concerned about the future.