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South Korean Officials Visit US Amid Beef Import Uproar


South Korean officials are traveling to the United States, in response to a growing public outcry over plans to resume imports of American beef. A month of street protests are expected to reach a new crescendo, this week, possibly costing some high-level officials their jobs. The protests have ended tragically for at least one South Korean, as VOA's Kurt Achin reports from Seoul.

Weeks of street protests opposing a deal to resume U.S. beef imports to South Korea have resulted in one death.

Doctors say a 40-year-old man, who set himself on fire two weeks ago at a protest rally, died this week at a Seoul hospital of his burns. The death may fuel already intense public emotion about South Korea's beef import deal.

Tens of thousands of candle-waving protesters have been gathering in downtown Seoul for weeks.

The gatherings have been mostly peaceful, with occasional clashes between police and more extreme demonstrators.

Lawmakers from the party of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak departed for Washington, Monday, for meetings with their American counterparts. Party Chairman Kang Jae-sup says the trip is designed as a follow-up to President Lee's weekend phone conversation with President George Bush.

He says he hopes the delegates will do a good job of explaining the current South Korean situation in Washington.

President Lee is also dispatching his vice minister of agriculture to Washington, to follow up on the phone call between the two presidents. Mr. Bush assured the South Korean president the United States would take measures to avoid exporting beef older than two and a-half years.

Protesters say older cattle pose a risk of transmitting the fatal brain condition known as "mad cow disease" to humans. South Korea banned American beef in 2003, after a single U.S. animal was found to have the disease. However, there has never been a single known case of a person contracting such disease from consuming U.S. beef. A United Nations scientific body has backed Washington's assertion that American beef, of all ages, is safe.

President Lee is now considering damage-control measures to ease public anger, from accepting the resignations of cabinet officials to brokering a voluntary private-sector ban on certain beef products. What he is reluctant to do is overturn the beef import deal completely. He says that could damage American trade ties on which South Korea depends.

Protests are expected to reach unprecedented levels, Tuesday, when posters around the city have called for a million South Koreans to take to the streets. The biggest gathering, so far, has been about 65,000 people.


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