Tens of thousands of anti-government protesters rallied Tuesday in the largest demonstration yet against the planned resumption of U.S. beef imports, failing to be placated by the entire South Korean Cabinet's offer to resign.
President Lee Myung-bak was expected to accept the resignations of a few ministers, which would not affect his ability to serve out his single, five-year term.
The Cabinet's offer to resign was an attempt to defuse the beef crisis that has sparked weeks of protests and paralyzed Lee's government less than four months after the former Hyundai CEO took office following a landslide election win.
What started as a trickle of small protests against a beef deal with the U.S. has swelled into a torrent of anti-government street rallies _ sometimes violent _ invoking the memory of pro-democracy movements in the 1980s that brought down the then-military dictatorship.
Tuesday's protests fell on the anniversary of pro-democracy protests in 1987 that intensified when a student activist died after being struck by a tear gas canister fired by riot police.
"I came to the rally again because Lee has turned the clock back to 21 years ago," said Hyun Jong-chul, 45, an office worker at Tuesday's protest in Seoul, the largest anti-beef rally so far that police said peaked at some 80,000 demonstrators.
Some 21,000 riot police were deployed to keep order in the city center, the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency said, and authorities blocked roads with shipping containers to prevent the crowd from marching to the nearby presidential Blue House.
Lee, a pro-American conservative, agreed in April just before a summit with U.S. President George W. Bush to reopen the country's beef market _ resolving the issue that had long been an irritant in bilateral ties.
South Korea was the third-largest overseas customer for U.S. beef until it banned imports after a case of mad cow disease _ the first of three confirmed in the United States _ was detected in 2003.
But a growing number of protesters have called for Lee's ouster for allegedly playing Russian roulette with their health and acting as a "dictator" who turns a deaf ear to the public.
While South Korean cattle farmers have been opposed to U.S. beef, they have not been the driving force at the recent rallies that have included high school students and families, who have been joined by left-leaning grassroots groups who oppose a wide range of Lee's policy plans, including on healthcare and education.
Carrying candles and filling streets of the capital, the protesters Tuesday carried red signs reading "Lee Myung-bak OUT."
"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.
Agriculture Minister Chung Woon-chun made an unsuccessful attempt to speak to the demonstrators at a major downtown thoroughfare in Seoul but failed after protesters surrounded him while calling him a "traitor."
Small-scale protests were also held in major cities across the country, according to police. No clashes were reported.
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.
The protests gained momentum after a popular current affairs TV program questioned the safety of U.S. beef in April and claimed Koreans are more susceptible to Creutzfeldt-Jakob because of genetics.
South Korea imports beef from Australia, New Zealand and Mexico, which accounts for about 53 percent of domestic market. South Koreans consumed 369,000 tons of beef in 2007, according to the Agriculture Ministry.
Before the 2003 ban, U.S. beef accounted for about 70 percent of imports.
Imports of U.S. beef are expected to drive down prices of Korean beef, which sells for 8,000 won (US$7) per 3.5 ounces (100 grams) _ more than twice as expensive as imported meat, according to a local cattle farmers association.
Associated Press writer Jae-hyun Jeong contributed to this report.