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South Korean Lawmakers Delay US Trade Deal in Beef Scare


South Korean lawmakers from mainly liberal parties say they will block ratification of a major free-trade deal with the United States amid a panic about American beef imports. The political stalemate ends hopes for a speedy implementation of the pact. VOA's Kurt Achin reports from Seoul.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak met Tuesday with Sohn Hak-kyu, the leader of the country's main opposition party. They failed to break a log jam about voting a major American trade deal into law.

Sohn told Mr. Lee his United New Democratic Party will not back the deal unless the terms for resuming U.S. beef imports were renegotiated separately. He also urged the president to apologize for an ongoing public controversy about American beef.

The Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement reached last year could add tens of billions of dollars to the two countries' commerce, in everything from drugs to automobiles. However, UNDP floor leader Kim Hyo-seuk said Tuesday the free trade deal is essentially "on hold" for the parliament session ending later this week.

Kim says, given public sentiment, it is very difficult to even discuss the free trade deal. He says there must be re-negotiating or the topic cannot be discussed.

Seoul banned the import of American beef in 2003, after a single U.S. animal was found to have the brain disease commonly known as "mad cow disease." Medical experts say it is hypothetically possible, though extremely unlikely, for people to contract a human variant of the disease by consuming tainted meat.

American officials say no human cases of mad cow disease have ever resulted from consuming U.S. beef and that no infected cow has ever been known to enter the food supply.

In April, President Lee fulfilled a promise by his predecessor to agree on resuming U.S. beef imports, once a United Nations body agreed it was safe. The move was seen as crucial to winning the American Congress's support for the broader trade agreement.

Thousands of South Koreans, mainly students, have been gathering frequently in downtown Seoul for candlelight vigils against importing U.S. beef. They accuse President Lee of compromising of South Korean sovereignty and public safety. The emotional protests have been fueled, in part, by Internet rumors, questionable South Korean news reports and grassroots sympathy with economically threatened South Korean cattle farmers.

UNDP floor leader Kim says the protesters should not be seen as anti-American. He says they just want to prevent mad cow disease, also known by its initials BSE.

"What the Korean people oppose is not the U.S. but BSE-risk beef. The Korean people are not anti-U.S., but anti-BSE," Kim said.

South Korean conservatives won a parliament majority in elections, early this year, and are expected to support both the U.S. trade deal and the resumption of American beef imports in the next legislative session. However, lawmakers say getting the topic to a vote could take months, because of upcoming summer vacations.

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