South Korean President Lee Myung-bak apologized for the second time in a month over his government’s handling of a US beef import deal, which has sparked massive street protests.
Lee promised to secure firm US government guarantees against any danger of mad cow disease during ongoing negotiations in Washington on revising the pact.
The embattled president also vowed a major reshuffle of his aides and Cabinet members as he seeks to restore public trust in his four-month-old government.
As his popularity slumps below 20 percent, Lee also promised to drop an unpopular cross-country canal plan if the public does not support it.
“I should have paid attention to what people want,” said Lee, battling a political crisis sparked by the agreement in April to resume the imports.
“I and my government will acutely reflect on this,” he told a nationally televised press conference.
South Koreans have staged a month-long series of candlelit protests, accusing the government of rushing through the beef pact without securing health safeguards.
At least 100,000 took to Seoul’s streets on June 10 and demonstrators have increasingly demanded that the pro-US president step down.
Lee said he watched “a stream of candles” that night from the mountain behind the presidential Blue House and “reproached myself for making people uncomfortable.”
Lee is desperate to revise the pact and has sent South Korean Agriculture Minister Kim Jong-hoon for talks with US Trade Representative Susan Schwab. They were scheduled to meet again yesterday.
Seoul wants the US government to guarantee a voluntary agreement by US exporters not to export older cattle, seen as potentially more at risk of the disease.
Lee said his government would secure a “firm” US government guarantee to ban beef from cattle older than 30 months.
“I expect the US, as an ally of South Korea, to respect the will of the South Korean people,” he said.
The former business chief executive, nicknamed the “Bulldozer” for his drive, said he had been “impetuous” to achieve change and reform after taking office in February.
“For a fresh start, I will carry out a major revamp of the aides. I will also reshuffle the Cabinet,” he added, without giving details.
Lee also stressed that his government would make stabilizing prices a top priority, as his administration grapples with a strike by truckers and construction drivers against high oil prices.
Seoul says it cannot formally renegotiate the beef pact, as opponents demand, since that would jeopardize a separate free trade agreement with the US and call its good faith as a negotiator into question.
South Korea was once the third-largest market for US beef before a 2003 ban following the first mad cow case in the US.
The pact to resume imports has not yet gone into effect because of the protests, even though both governments say the meat is totally safe.
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