For the second time in four weeks, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak apologized Thursday for failing to consider public opinion in a beef import deal with the United States.
This time, he added a key concession to protesters who have been pouring into the streets since April.
He says, as long as South Korean people do not want it, there will be no U.S. beef from cattle older than 30 months on offer to Korean consumers. Mr. Lee says he will obtain concrete guarantees from Washington on that point. He says he expects the United States, a close ally, to respect South Korea's will.
South Korea banned U.S. beef in 2003, after an American animal was found to have "mad cow disease." President Lee's April deal to resume U.S. beef imports angered South Korean opponents, because it failed to include the same sort of restriction on meat from older cattle that other U.S. trade partners maintain. Cattle older than 30 months are considered to be at higher risk of the disease.
There has never been a confirmed case of anyone contracting the human variant of mad cow disease from eating American beef. U.S. officials and the United National World Organization for Animal Health have said American beef is safe.
U.S. lawmakers have warned ratification of a much broader free trade deal, signed last year between the two countries, would be in jeopardy if South Korea did not reopen its beef market.
President Lee says the economic benefits of that agreement were uppermost in his mind when he made the beef deal.
He says he thought ratifying the free trade deal was a "shortcut" to trigger the economic growth South Korea urgently needs. He says he thought ejecting U.S. beef would have endangered the deal and possibly set off trade disputes. So, like it or not, he says he thought the beef deal was unavoidable.
President Lee's trade minister is in Washington seeking concrete means of implementing the beef export limitation. The arrangement being discussed would be voluntary. However, Mr. Lee says President Bush has assured him the export limits would be guaranteed by the U.S. government.
Separately, President Lee promised to replace his chief of staff and other unspecified members of his cabinet, in the near future. He also promised to hold off on a massive South Korean canal project, if it is clear the people are against it.
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