South Korea's entire Cabinet offered to resign Tuesday to dampen public uproar over the planned resumption of U.S. beef imports, as tens of thousands of protesters gathered in the largest demonstration yet against the policy.
President Lee Myung-bak's office did not say whether he would accept the resignations, an attempt to defuse the beef crisis that has paralyzed his government less than four months after the former Hyundai CEO took office following a landslide election victory.
The government agreed in April to lift almost all restrictions that had been imposed on imports of U.S. beef over fears of mad cow disease. The decision sparked weeks of protests demanding the government scrap or renegotiate the beef deal amid perceptions it did not do enough to protect citizens.
In the largest protest so far, some 70,000 demonstrators waving candles gathered Tuesday evening in central Seoul, according to police, who blocked roads with shipping containers to prevent them from marching to the nearby presidential Blue House. Some 21,000 riot police were deployed to keep order, the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency said.
"President Lee hasn't listened to the voices of his people. We still don't have a genuine democracy in our country," said Jang Dae-hyun, a spokesman for a civic group that has organized protests.
Rallies against the deal turned violent Sunday and the government said it will take tougher steps against protesters if the violence continues.
Earlier, thousands of conservative activists supporting the deal protested near the site of the anti-U.S. beef rally.
"It's time to put out the candles," said Suh Jung-kap, a conservative activist. The protesters "are only interested in overthrowing the Lee Myung-bak government, not the safety of public health," he said.
Lee's government said it has asked the U.S. not to export beef from older cattle _ considered at greater risk of mad cow disease _ but rejected calls for a complete renegotiation of the accord, citing possible diplomatic and trade disputes with the U.S.
Lee dispatched several official delegations to Washington on Monday to seek assurances the U.S. will not ship beef from cattle older than 30 months, even though that is allowed under the agreement.
Both Seoul and Washington insist U.S. beef is safe, citing the Paris-based World Organization for Animal Health.
Scientists say mad cow 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.