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Friday, June 06, 2008

South Korean president vows to take 'humble attitude' amid US beef protests

SEOUL, South Korea - A contrite President Lee Myung-bak vowed Friday to take a "humble attitude," while protesters used a long weekend to boost pressure on the South Korean government over a widely unpopular U.S. beef import deal.

About 1,000 people rallied during the day Friday in central Seoul, following a demonstration the previous night by a crowd estimated by police at 25,000.

Organizers have pledged that rallies will continue nonstop through Sunday.

South Koreans have been taking to the streets to criticize Lee for his handling of the April agreement with Washington to allow imports of U.S. beef.

Many South Koreans fear that the beef deal fails to protect the nation from mad cow disease by allowing beef from older U.S. cattle, considered at greater risk of the illness.

South Korea's government said last week it would begin allowing imports this week, but withdrew the plan at the last minute Monday, apparently fearful of a public backlash.

TProtesters complain Lee has ignored their concerns about mad cow disease, behaved arrogantly and given in to U.S. demands.

"I will open my ears in a more humble attitude and listen to the people," Lee said in a speech Friday to commemorate Memorial Day, a national holiday. He did not directly mention the beef dispute.

The government also said it has asked the United States to refrain from exporting beef from cattle 30 months of age or older. Still, it stopped short of directly asking Washington for a renegotiation of the deal and failed to calm public anger.

Public outcry against the beef pact has dominated politics in South Korea and backed Lee's new government into a corner.

On Thursday an opposition boycott of the country's National Assembly forced Lee to cancel a traditional opening speech at the legislature.

U.S. beef has been banned from South Korea for most of the past four and a half years since the first case of mad cow disease in the U.S. was discovered in late 2003. Two subsequent cases were found.

Scientists believe the 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



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