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S. Korean Trade Minister Visiting U.S. Over Beef Dispute

Top trade official said he would travel to the U.S. to seek restrictions on American beef imports in a bid to soothe anti-government protesters.

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) -- South Korea's top trade official said Thursday he would travel to the U.S. to seek restrictions on American beef imports in a bid to soothe anti-government protesters.

But the organizers of the demonstrations rejected the plan, saying they would continue to protest to demand a complete renegotiation of the beef deal over fears of mad cow disease. Meanwhile, the top U.S. diplomat in Seoul warned that the uproar could damage relations between the longtime allies.

Trade Minister Kim Jong-hoon told reporters he would depart Friday to Washington to convince officials to approve measures where the beef industry would voluntarily agree not to ship meat from cattle older than 30 months.

Kim said he plans to meet U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab for ''additional negotiations to work out substantial, efficient measures ... reflecting our people's concerns over the resumption of U.S. beef imports that have been expressed as continuing massive rallies.''

Cattle older than 30 months are believed to be more susceptible to mad cow disease. Other countries have also restricted imports of older American beef, such as Japan, which only allows meat from cattle younger than 20 months.

South Korea was the third-largest overseas customer for U.S. beef until it banned imports after a case of mad cow disease, the first of three confirmed in the United States, was detected in 2003.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak agreed to resumed U.S. beef imports in April just before a summit with U.S. President George W. Bush, seeking to fulfill a campaign pledge to foster warmer ties with Washington. But critics accuse him of kowtowing to the U.S. and taking action without seeking public consensus.

Concerns over the safety of U.S. beef triggered protests that have in recent weeks grown into large anti-government rallies. The entire Cabinet offered to resign earlier this week to dampen public outrage.

Both the South Korean and U.S. sides have said they do not plan to renegotiate the April agreement that places no age restrictions on beef imports.

Kim said he aims to work out measures that would alter how the deal is put into effect while still retaining South Korea's credibility. ''I think that is the wisest measure,'' he said.

A coalition of civic groups that have organized anti-government demonstrations said in a statement that talks short of a complete renegotiation would be a ''distortion of the people's wishes.'' The groups said South Korea will became ''a hub country for mad cow disease'' unless drastic changes are made to the accord.

''We are warning the government again. We want a full-fledged renegotiation, not continuous makeshift, deceitful measures,'' said the statement.

The group has set a June 20 deadline for the government to decide to renegotiate, threatening to intensify its rallies calling for President Lee's ouster, said group member Lim Tae-hun. More large-scale candlelight vigils were expected in Seoul over the weekend, he said.

Also Thursday, U.S. Ambassador Alexander Vershbow said he was concerned the public uproar in South Korea might undermine the country's alliance with the U.S.

''Some of my Korean friends tell me, 'Don't take this personally, this is partly about U.S. beef, but largely about Korean politics,''' Vershbow said in a prepared statement to a Seoul forum provided by his office.

''That's fine, but I think we have a responsibility -- both in the United States and in Korea -- to ensure that our alliance is insulated from domestic politics in either country.''

He said Washington is ''working very hard'' to address South Korean doubts about the safety of U.S. beef, which he said was the same meat Americans eat everyday.