80,000 demonstrate in Seoul against imports of US beef; fear mad cow disease
Hyung-Jin Kim, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
SEOUL, South Korea - South Korea's capital is witnessing its largest demonstration to date over a government decision to allow a resumption of U.S. beef imports.
Some 80,000 candle-waving protesters have gathered in central Seoul to protests the imports, which many South Koreans fear will add to their risk of mad cow disease.
Some 21,000 riot police have been deployed to keep order, and police have blocked roads with shipping containers to prevent the crowd from marching to the nearby presidential Blue House.
Earlier, the entire South Korean cabinet offered to resign as a result of the uproar over last April's decision on the beef imports.
President Lee Myung-bak's office did not say whether he would accept the resignations, which some officials hope will defuse a crisis that has paralyzed the administration less than four months after Lee won a landslide election victory.
Michael Breen, a longtime British observer of the local scene and author of the book "The Koreans," blamed the current situation on disinformation spread on the Internet.
"Nothing the government says will be trusted because it is dealing with hysteria," he said.
Tuesday's rally coincided with the anniversary of pro-democracy protests in 1987. The protests eventually led the country's military-backed regime to introduce direct presidential elections.
"I came to the rally again because Lee has turned the clock back to 21 years ago," said Hyun Jong-chul, 45, an office worker at the demonstration.
"President Lee hasn't listened to the voices of his people. We still don't have a genuine democracy in our country," said Jang Dae-hyun, a spokesman for a civic group that has organized protests.
Rallies against the beef deal turned violent over the weekend and the government said it would take tougher steps against protesters if the violence continues.
Earlier, thousands of conservative activists supporting the deal protested near the site of the anti-U.S. beef rally.
"It's time to put out the candles," said Suh Jung-kap, a conservative activist. The protesters "are only interested in overthrowing the Lee Myung-bak government, not the safety of public health," he said.
Lee's government said it has asked the U.S. not to export beef from older cattle - considered at greater risk of mad cow disease - but rejected calls for a complete renegotiation of the accord, citing possible diplomatic and trade disputes with Washington.
Lee dispatched several official delegations to Washington on Monday to seek assurances the U.S. will not ship beef from cattle older than 30 months, even though that is allowed under the agreement.
Both Seoul and Washington insist U.S. beef is safe, citing the Paris-based World Organization for Animal Health.
Scientists say mad cow disease spreads when farmers feed cattle recycled meat and bones from infected animals. The U.S. banned recycled feeds in 1997. In humans, eating meat products contaminated with the illness is linked to variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a rare and fatal malady.
© The Canadian Press, 2008