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South Korea Delaying U.S. Beef Imports

Agriculture Ministry puts off the final administrative step needed to clear the way for imports to begin after a request from the ruling party and large weekend street protests.

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) -- The South Korean government said Monday it was delaying the planned resumption of U.S. beef imports, after a request from the ruling party and large weekend street protests.

Agriculture Ministry spokesman Kim Hyun-soo said the ministry had decided to put off the final administrative step needed to clear the way for imports to begin.

He offered no details, including how long the delay would last.

The ministry had earlier requested that new quarantine rules announced last week be officially published Tuesday in a government journal, which would allow for inspections of U.S. beef shipments to commence.

President Lee Myung-bak's Grand National Party, however, requested Monday that the ministry hold off, according to party spokeswoman Cho Yoon-sun.

The delay comes after tens of thousands of South Koreans took to the streets over the weekend to protest the government's decision to implement an April beef import agreement with the United States.

U.S beef has been banned by South Korea for most of the past four and a half years over fears of mad cow disease.

A total of almost 60,000 people rallied in downtown Seoul over the weekend to denounce the government and call for the agreement to be scrapped.

Police clashed with protesters and detained about 300 of them, though some were released. Early Sunday morning police fired water cannons at crowds.

Protests Monday night were much smaller, with police estimating about 1,500 people gathered in central Seoul amid heavy rain.

Lee told GNP Chairman Kang Jae-sup earlier Monday that he would take steps to resolve concerns after listening to opinions on the issue, according to presidential spokesman Lee Dong-kwan.

Repeated calls to the spokesman seeking comment on the reason for the delay went unanswered late Monday.

South Korea agreed on April 18 to reopen what was the third-largest overseas market for American beef before the first U.S. case of mad cow disease was found in Washington state in December 2003.

Public anger intensified starting Thursday, when the government announced it would resume beef inspections this week. The weekend rallies were the biggest yet in a month of demonstrations.

Protesters claim U.S. beef is unsafe and say Lee is ignoring their concerns, behaving arrogantly and kowtowing to Washington. Lee's government has repeatedly said American beef poses no safety risk.

The timing of the import deal -- reached just hours before a summit between Lee and U.S. President George W. Bush at his Camp David retreat -- has also fueled anger.

Lee, a former chief executive with a top construction company, took office Feb. 25 on a wave of popular support promising to boost South Korea's economy and take a harder line on communist North Korea.

Though Lee's margin of victory in December's election was the largest ever in South Korea, his handling of the beef issue has seen his popularity plummet to nearly 20 percent in some public opinion surveys.

Scientists believe mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, spreads when farmers feed cattle recycled meat and bones from infected animals. The U.S. banned recycled feeds in 1997.

In humans, eating meat products contaminated with the cattle disease is linked to variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a rare and fatal malady.