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South Korean President Criticizes Illegal Protests

President Lee spoke out against protests that rattled his administration, saying any illegal, violent demonstrations against U.S. beef imports would not be tolerated.

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) -- South Korea's president spoke out Tuesday against the protests that have rattled his administration, saying the government would not tolerate any illegal, violent demonstrations against the planned resumption of U.S. beef imports.

South Korea and the United States struck a new deal last week restricting U.S. beef exports to younger cattle following weeks of street rallies in Seoul over health concerns. Korean activists, however, have vowed to keep rallying against President Lee Myung-bak, calling for a complete renegotiation of the original April beef accord.

Lee told a Cabinet meeting Tuesday that his government should "sternly deal with illegal, violent rallies that shake the national identity," according to his office. Lee added, however, that the government should review its policies when it faces protests criticizing a certain policy.

Lee also said it is "very fortunate" that there were no human casualties during weeks of rallies that occasionally turned violent.

Police said Tuesday they have so far formally arrested three protesters on charges of beating riot police and illegally occupying major Seoul streets. More than 600 demonstrators had been briefly detained amid the protests, according to police.

Culture Minister Yu In-chon urged protesters to halt their candlelight vigils, saying it was time to focus on overcoming economic difficulties such as surging oil prices.

"I think now it's time to put out candles and return to work," Yu told reporters.

Under an April agreement, South Korea was to resume U.S. beef imports with few restrictions. The update to the deal, however, requires the U.S. to export only product from cattle 30 months or younger, which are considered less at risk of carrying mad cow disease.

A public survey released Tuesday suggested most South Koreans still oppose the new import plan.

Nearly 53 percent of respondents to a telephone survey said the South Korean government should not accept the new deal, while just over 38 percent supported it. The survey of 726 adults conducted by the Seoul-based Korea Research Center had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.6 percentage points.

Seoul had been expected to move in coming days to resume American beef imports, but the ruling party and the government decided Sunday to delay the process to seek the public's understanding on the issue.

Agriculture Minister Chung Woon-chun indicated the government would soon restart beef imports by posting an official notice of the agreement.

"I can't clearly say the notice would be made today or tomorrow, but we can't further delay it," Chung told a news conference.

The decision to proceed slowly reflected the government's concerns it would be accused of arrogance and suffer a backlash if it was to resume U.S. beef imports without explaining the move fully to the public.

U.S. beef was banned from South Korea in 2003, after the first case of mad cow disease was discovered in cattle there. South Korea had previously been the third-largest market for American beef.

Eating meat products contaminated with mad cow disease is linked to variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a rare and fatal human malady. U.S. and South Korean officials insist American beef is safe.