SEOUL, South Korea – South Korea's embattled president replaced his top advisers Friday in a bid to soothe public outrage over plans to resume U.S. beef imports, while Seoul and Washington officials said they were near a resolution of the dispute.
In a nationally televised news conference, Lee Myung-bak introduced his new chief of staff and seven other senior presidential secretaries, seeking to make what he called "a fresh start" for his administration, which took office less than four months ago.
"We promise again that we'll open our ears ... and do our best in serving the people," he said.
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Lee's entire Cabinet has also offered to resign over the beef issue — which has sparked weeks of anti-government demonstrations over health concerns — but the president has not yet said which ministers will leave the government.
South Korea suspended imports of U.S. beef after the first case of mad cow disease appeared in the U.S. in 2003, closing what had been the third-largest foreign market for American producers. Limited imports resumed last year but were halted when bones, banned as risk material for disease, were discovered in shipments.
In Washington, trade chiefs from South Korea and the U.S. concluded talks on the beef issue Thursday and were close to an agreement, according to both governments.
While both countries have said they will not renegotiate an April agreement reopening South Korea's market to American beef, U.S. suppliers were expected to voluntarily pledge not to export meat from older cattle — believed more at risk for mad cow disease.
The two sides "neared a result that can satisfy each other," the South Korean Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
South Korea will announce details Saturday after Trade Minister Kim Jong-hoon reports to Lee and consults with related ministries, ministry spokesman Moon Tae-young said.
"We have made good progress this week and are close to reaching a mutually agreeable path forward," Gretchen Hamel, a spokeswoman for the U.S. trade representative, said in Washington.
The beef agreement sparked anti-government protests that climaxed last week with a candlelight rally that drew some 80,000 people, but the protests have dwindled in size as the government began seeking to limit the import deal. On Friday night, about 3,200 people took part in a candlelight protest in Seoul, according to police.
A coalition of civic groups that has organized the protests said Friday it would keep rallying against Lee, and that only a complete renegotiation of the beef deal could resolve the turmoil, not a personnel change.
"Our criticism will be intensified" if the beef talks with the U.S. are found to have produced little progress, said Kim Dong-kyu, a coalition official.
Meanwhile, about 120 South Korean meat importers said Friday they would only import U.S. beef from cattle less than 30 months old to enhance public confidence.
In humans, eating meat products contaminated with mad cow disease is linked to variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a rare and fatal malady. U.S. and South Korean officials have insisted American beef is safe, but the issue has sparked an outcry among protesters accusing Lee of failing to protect the nation's health.
Lee apologized to the public earlier this week for the second time over the beef deal and pledged to keep U.S. beef out of South Korea unless Washington limits exports to younger cattle.
Lee took office in February after a landslide election win on promises he would strengthen ties with the U.S. and reinvigorate the slowing economy. The beef debacle, however, has caused his popularity to plummet and scuttled cherished projects like a plan to build a cross-country canal.