South Korean ruling party lawmakers left Monday for the United States to seek assurances that it will not export beef from older cattle in hopes of calming a domestic political crisis generated by fears of mad cow disease.
The trip to Washington comes amid South Korean media reports that President Lee Myung-bak's Cabinet could resign Tuesday because of the dispute over American beef imports and the massive, sometimes violent rallies it has spawned in Seoul.
The Grand National Party delegation of four legislators and one party official will urge the U.S. to promise in writing that it will not export beef from cattle aged 30 months or older, said party spokesman Hwang Cheon-mo.
Older cows are considered at greater risk of mad cow disease, a brain-wasting cattle sickness. South Korea has asked Washington to refrain from exporting meat from older cattle despite an April agreement that allows it.
Seoul's presidential office said Saturday that U.S. President George W. Bush pledged in a phone conversation with his South Korean counterpart to work out unspecified measures banning the export of the older cattle.
The White House meanwhile said Bush assured Lee that Washington was ready to back U.S. beef exporters as they tried to reach a solution with South Korean importers. It did not comment on South Korea's statement on the older cattle.
Separately, senior South Korean Presidential Secretary Kim Byung-kook was also to leave for the U.S. as early as Monday to discuss follow-up measures on Lee's phone talks with Bush, according to the Blue House.
Major media, including the nationally circulated JoongAng Ilbo newspaper, reported Monday that all of Lee's Cabinet ministers planned to offer their resignations Tuesday. The Blue House said it could not confirm the reports.
South Korea agreed April 18 to resume imports of American beef, saying it would lift almost all quarantine restrictions imposed over fears of mad cow disease. South Korea banned American beef imports in December 2003 after a case was discovered in the United States.
The deal _ signed just hours before a summit between Lee and Bush _ sparked fierce protests in South Korea amid perceptions the government did not do enough to protect citizens from potentially tainted beef.
Although it officially still stands, the deal has effectively unraveled, because the South Korean government was forced to delay the implementation of the new quarantine standards as protests mounted.
Tens of thousands of South Koreans took to the streets in Seoul over the weekend, demanding the government to scrap or renegotiate the beef import deal. Early Sunday, protesters fought with police, attacking riot-control buses lined up to barricade streets and block roads leading to the Blue House. Clashes lasted until after sunrise.
Later Sunday, citing the clashes, Justice Minister Kim Kyung-han hinted that police could take tougher measures against protesters if the violence continues.
The beef issue has confounded the conservative, pro-U.S. Lee, who took office in February after a landslide election victory in December on a vow to boost the economy and bolster ties with Washington.
Both Seoul and Washington say U.S. beef is safe, citing the Paris-based World Organization for Animal Health. Protesters say they can't trust what Lee says.
His top secretaries have already offered to resign to take the responsibility for the beef dispute. South Korean media reported that Lee's Cabinet planned to resign en masse Tuesday. The Blue House said it could not confirm the reports.
Except for the brief allowance of limited imports last year, U.S. beef has been shut out of South Korea since the first known case of mad cow disease in the U.S. was discovered in late 2003.
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.
Associated Press Writers Jin-man Lee and Kwang-tae Kim contributed to this report.