South Korean Prime Minister, Other Top Officials May Resign Over Contested Beef Deal

Several of South Korea's top political leaders, including Prime Minister Han Seung Soo, his Cabinet and top aides to President Lee Myung Bak, may tender their resignations next week over the public outrage at a government decision to resume imports of U.S. beef, Yonhap News Agency reported Sunday.

"A collective resignation offer by Prime Minister Han and the Cabinet ministers seems imminent," Yonhap said, quoting an anonymous source at the Cheong Wa Dae presidential office.

It added Lee is likely to accept several of the resignations and replace as many a half dozen ministers involved in the beef imbroglio.

The source, Yonhap said, believes the foreign, agriculture and finance ministers may be among those replaced.

The source also indicated replacing the Prime Minister Han "cannot be ruled out," Yonhap said.

On Friday, senior secretaries to Lee, including chief of staff Yu Woo Ik, offered to resign and the Yonhap source said Lee is likely to replace Yu and several senior secretaries, including Kim Byong Kook, the senior presidential secretary in charge of foreign policy.

On Saturday, U.S. President George W. Bush promised in a telephone conversation with Lee to ensure only U.S. beef from younger cattle will be exported to South Korea.

But that appears not to have been enough to end the public assault on Lee's administration.

The country has been wracked by protest over fears of mad cow disease since it signed an agreement with the United States in April to resume regular imports of most cuts of U.S. beef.

Prior to the accord to reopen its market, South Korea, once the third- largest importer of American beef until a U.S. outbreak of mad cow disease in 2003, had only allowed boneless beef from cattle less than 30 months old.

It was to lift the import curbs on May 15, but that was postponed in the face of the massive public outcry.