South Korea said yesterday it might demand a revision of a beef import agreement with the US, as the government struggled to quell widespread perceptions that US beef was unsafe.
The agreement, struck last month, has been widely criticized as making too many concessions to the US because it scrapped nearly all the quarantine regulations Seoul imposed earlier to guard against mad cow disease.
South Korean Prime Minister Han Seung-soo said in a nationally televised address that Seoul would demand changes to the pact “if a new situation occurs while monitoring negotiations between the United States and other nations.”
Han did not elaborate, but the remark apparently meant Seoul would try to improve its beef deal with the US if it were deemed unfair compared with similar agreements Washington might sign with other countries.
“The government will protect the people’s heath as the foremost priority in any situation,” Han said.
But three main opposition parties agreed later yesterday to seek to dismiss the agriculture minister, pass a resolution calling for renegotiation and launch a parliamentary probe into the negotiations.
Fueling South Koreans’ fears of mad cow disease was a current affairs TV show last week that claimed Koreans are more susceptible than Americans and Europeans to contracting a rare sickness that can result from eating beef infected with the disease.
The government dismissed the claim and repeatedly assured that US beef is safe, holding hours-long live TV debates.
But thousands of people have held candlelight vigils in recent days, urging the government to scrap the beef deal.
Han reaffirmed Wednesday’s pledge by South Korean President Lee Myung-bak that the country would immediately halt imports if a new case of the disease breaks out in the US. He also asserted that US beef was safe.
“US beef is consumed not only by Americans, but also people in 96 countries in the world,’’ Han said.