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South Korea Makes Public Apology Over U.S. Beef

President Lee Myung-bak apologized to the public for ignoring their concerns over U.S. beef imports that have paralyzed his government and caused public protests.

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) -- South Korean President Lee Myung-bak apologized to the public Thursday for ignoring their concerns in moving to restore U.S. beef imports that have paralyzed his government and caused weeks of public protests.

In a nationally televised address, Lee said he sought to restore beef imports to help passage of a broader free-trade deal with the United States. The deal has been approved by both governments but still awaits legislative approval in Seoul and Washington.

Protests prompted by fears of mad cow disease in American beef grew into broader opposition to Lee's policy agenda, with critics blasting him for failing to heed public opinion and accusing him of pandering to U.S. interests. The protests came to a climax with a candlelight rally last week that drew some 80,000 people.

With the global economy slowing, Lee said he saw the U.S.-South Korea free-trade agreement as a ''shortcut'' to fulfill his promise to boost the South's economy.

Lee said he ''was in a hurry after being elected president as I thought I could not succeed unless I achieve changes and reform within one year after inauguration.''

''As a president, I did not want to miss this golden opportunity,'' he said. ''I could not sit idly by seeing this window of opportunity being closed without making any efforts.''

But Lee said there was ''no possibility of ratification'' of the free-trade deal this year if South Korea continued to reject American beef.

Lee also said he wanted to improve Seoul's previously strained relations with the U.S. to help the country's security, citing the nuclear threat from North Korea.

The scale of protests has dropped markedly over the past week as the government began looking to limit the import deal and violence at the demonstrations drew criticism.

On Wednesday evening, only 800 people turned out for the daily candlelight vigil, police said.

Seoul's top trade official is in Washington seeking the U.S. government's aggreement to import beef only from cattle less than 30 months old, considered less at risk for mad cow disease. The April 18 deal allows the U.S. to export beef to the country without any age restrictions.

Lee said he will ''ensure that the U.S. beef older than 30 months will not be put on our dinner tables as long as the people do not want it.''

The entire Cabinet has offered to resign over the issue. Lee said Thursday he would reshuffle the Cabinet and top advisers, but gave no immediate details.