SEOUL, South Korea (AP) -- South Korea's president apologized Thursday to citizens for a beef import accord with the U.S. that has sparked fears of mad cow disease.
President Lee Myung-bak's nationally televised address was aimed at trying to calm public anger over the April 18 deal. It does not affect the agreement's terms, which call for Seoul to resume full-scale imports of American beef for the first time in more than four years.
Lee said the government should have tried harder to sell the deal to the public before going forward.
''I humbly accept the point that the government neglected to fathom the people's mind. I feel sorry,'' Lee said.
The beef accord has come under heavy criticism for allegedly failing to protect South Koreans against mad cow disease. The deal calls for Seoul to scrap nearly all restrictions that the country, under Lee's predecessor, imposed on American beef over mad cow concerns.
Lee has defended the deal as being based on scientific grounds, repeatedly assuring the public that U.S. beef is safe.
Still, those efforts failed to stop the spread of mad cow worries among South Koreans, fanned in large part by sensational media reports. Thousands of people have held a series of candlelight vigils in recent weeks urging the government to scrap the deal.
Lee's popularity has plummeted. A newspaper survey last week showed he had only 22.6 percent support -- stunning for a leader who took office less than three months ago. The poll, commissioned by the Naeil Shinmoon newspaper, had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
Lee also urged the National Assembly to pass a free trade agreement with Washington before its term expires next week.
The trade accord, struck last year, awaits legislative approval in both countries. Lee's rival party is reluctant to ratify the agreement amid public criticism of the beef deal.
Later in the day, thousands of protesters, mostly farmers, held a peaceful rally in Seoul to oppose the free trade agreement and call for scrapping the beef deal. Police estimated turnout at 8,000.
Farmers worry that the free trade accord would flood the nation with cheap U.S. agricultural products, threatening their livelihoods.
South Korea suspended imports of U.S. beef after the first American case of mad cow disease appeared in December 2003 in a Canadian-born cow in Washington state.
Restricted imports of U.S. beef reached South Korean supermarkets last year, but further shipments were put on hold in October after banned parts, such as bones, were found in a shipment.
Scientists believe mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, spreads when farmers feed cattle recycled meat and bones from infected animals. In humans, eating meat products contaminated with the illness is linked to variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a rare and fatal malady.