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South Koreans Hold Massive Rally Against US Beef Imports

South Koreans have turned out in massive numbers for a rally to criticize their president and to oppose the resumed import of American beef. Some are comparing the rallies to ones held on the same date more than 20 years ago to oppose authoritarian rule. VOA's Kurt Achin reports from Seoul.

Tuesday night's massive crowd appeared close to 100,000 people or more - the protesters fully occupying a giant eight-lane traffic artery in downtown Seoul.

Like many similar protests recently, this one was overwhelmingly peaceful. Demonstrators waved candles and chanted slogans critical of President Lee Myung-bak and his deal to resume U.S. beef imports.

South Korea was once the world's third largest consumer of American beef. But Seoul banned U.S. beef imports after a single U.S. animal was diagnosed in 2003 with the fatal brain condition known as "mad cow disease."

Protesters say they fear consuming U.S. beef will put them at risk of contracting a human version of the disease, even though there has never been a single documented case of that happening. U.S. officials point out only three American animals have ever been found to have mad cow disease, and none of them entered the food supply.

A consensus is emerging that these demonstrations have transcended the beef issue alone, and represent a far broader discontent with President Lee.

The protesters shout, "Lee Myung-bak - get out!"

Kim Ji-yoon, a student protest leader, tells the crowd the protests are about more than mad cows, but also about mad education policies, and mad canals. The latter is a reference to Mr. Lee's plan to dig a waterway connecting major cities.

The South Korean president is a former corporate chairman whose hard-driving style helped earn him the nickname "bulldozer." Choi Jin, Director of the Institute for Presidential Leadership in Seoul, says that style may not be well adapted to the presidency.

He says Mr. Lee needs to show the South Korean people he is not purely concerned with results, but also with the democratic process. He describes Mr. Lee's style so far as too hasty, and dismissive of that process.

Lee Dong-kwan, spokesman for President Lee, says senior officials are ready to accept serious consequences for the controversy.

He says Mr. Lee's prime minister and entire Cabinet have submitted their resignations to soothe public anger. He later said the President has not decided what action to take on the resignations at this time.

Earlier, police protectively surrounded a group of about 500 protesters in support of resuming U.S. beef imports.

Yoon Eun-oh, 64, says U.S. beef is safe, and says the other protests are just about working out political grudges against President Lee.

The demonstration falls on the anniversary 1987 demonstrations that are credited with helping to end authoritarian rule in South Korea. South Korea's editorial pages have been debating how closely recent protests deserve to be identified with those from two decades ago.