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South Korea Delays US Beef Imports Amid Public Protests

South Korea is delaying the resumption of U.S. beef imports, in an ongoing controversy that could threaten the passage of a major trade deal between the two countries. VOA's Kurt Achin reports from Seoul that South Korean officials are under pressure from protesters to retain a ban on U.S. beef.

South Korean food inspectors had been scheduled to examine shipments of U.S. beef this week, a crucial first step in resuming the country's long suspended trade in U.S. beef imports. But Agriculture Minister Chung Woo-chun told lawmakers in Seoul that milestone would have to wait a little longer.

He says quarantine inspectors need to take their time and screen the shipments very closely, in order to reassure South Korean consumers that U.S. beef is safe to eat. All in all, says Chung, the delay will be about seven to 10 days.

U.S. beef is one of the most sensitive political issues in South Korea. Seoul banned the import of U.S. 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 possible, though unlikely, for people to contract a human variant of the disease by consuming tainted meat. U.S. 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.

Last month, nearly a year after a United Nations body essentially backed Washington's assertions that U.S. beef is safe, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak agreed to a gradual resumption of all U.S. beef imports. U.S. lawmakers had warned failing to do so would jeopardize passage of a much broader trade deal that could boost commerce between the two countries by tens of billions of dollars a year.

In recent weeks, questionable news reports and a blizzard of Internet rumors about the danger of U.S. beef have helped fuel an emotionally charged opposition movement to the resumption of imports.

Thousands of protesters, mainly young students, have defied police to hold candlelight vigils on a near nightly basis for two weeks in downtown Seoul. South Korean police say they will punish the instigators of the protests, which they describe as illegal.

Analysts say many factors have given momentum to the anti-U.S. beef movement. They include grassroots sympathy with South Korean farmers, liberal opposition to President Lee, and nationalistic resentment to what some perceive as excessive concessions to the United States.

The beef issue is now eclipsing debate about ratifying the broader U.S. trade deal. Opposition parties say they will seek to delay or derail that deal unless the government renegotiates U.S. beef imports.