South Korea says Bush pledges to prevent US beef exports from older cattle

U.S. President George W. Bush pledged Saturday to come up with measures to ensure that beef from older cattle _ considered at greater risk of mad cow disease _ is not exported to South Korea, Seoul's presidential office said.
Bush made the remark during a phone conversation with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, the presidential Blue House said. Lee's fledgling government has been battered by daily protests over an April agreement to resume imports of U.S. beef.
"President Bush said he sufficiently understands South Koreans' concerns and worries," it said in a statement. "In this regard, (Bush) pledged to prepare specific measures to make sure that beef from cattle aged 30 months or older is not exported to South Korea."
It did not say what those measures would be.
In Washington, White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said Bush assured Lee that the U.S. government "is cooperating closely with the South Korean government and ready to support American cattle exporters as they reach a mutually acceptable solution with Korean importers on the beef trade."
Lee's call to Bush underscored the new South Korean leader's political dilemma _ caught between a pledge to his country's most important ally and the anger of South Korean citizens who have taken to the streets by the tens of thousands.
It was unclear whether Bush's promise announced by South Korea would be enough to ease the opposition to imports of U.S. beef.
The phone call came a day after South Koreans on Friday staged the biggest rally so far against the beef import deal, which they say fails to protect the country from mad cow disease by allowing meat from cattle of any age.
Police said 65,000 people took part in the protest, in which dozens of demonstrators and riot police were injured.
South Koreans have been taking to the streets for weeks to criticize Lee over the deal, claiming he ignored their concerns about mad cow disease, behaved arrogantly and gave in to U.S. demands.
Even as the two presidents spoke, a crowd estimated by police at about 40,000 rallied Saturday night in central Seoul. There were no immediate reports of clashes or arrests.
Both the South Korean and U.S. governments have repeatedly said that American beef is safe to eat. Protesters, however, have demanded the agreement be scrapped or renegotiated.
Lee said Friday that demanding a renegotiation would spark a trade dispute with Washington that could affect South Korea's export-driven economy, especially its key auto and semiconductor industries.
However, he said that the government would seek other ways to keep beef from older cattle from entering the country, and that the United States was "actively cooperating" to find a solution.
South Korea and the United States concluded a landmark free trade agreement last year, though it still awaits ratification by their respective legislatures.
The beef dispute has turned into a political crisis for Lee, who took office just over three months ago on a wave of popularity for promising to revitalize the economy.
But his approval ratings have nose-dived since the April 18 beef pact. A poll published in a major newspaper days ago put his public support at less than 20 percent.
U.S. beef has been banned from South Korea for most of the past four and a half years since the first case of mad cow disease in the U.S. was discovered in late 2003. Two subsequent cases were found.
Scientists believe the disease 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 illness is linked to variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a rare and fatal malady blamed for the deaths of over 150 people worldwide, mostly in Britain.

Updated : 2021-01-28 23:37 GMT+08:00