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'Transitional' US Beef Export Steps Aim to Ease South Korean Fears

South Korea says the past week's negotiations in Washington have resulted in a modified agreement to import U.S. beef. Senior officials say U.S. beef exporters, under Washington's supervision, will prevent controversial shipments of beef from older cattle for now. VOA Seoul Correspondent Kurt Achin explains.

South Korean Agriculture Minister Chung Woo-chun said Saturday the United States is willing to hold back on some of the beef products it was planning to ship here.

He says it was agreed in this week's Washington negotiations that beef from US cattle more than 30 months old should not be exported to South Korea until consumer confidence is restored.

Many South Koreans have become convinced U.S. beef poses a risk of transmitting mad cow disease to humans - especially beef from older cattle, which have a high incidence of the disease. American beef imports were banned here in 2003 after a single U.S. animal was found to have the fatal brain disease.

No human has ever been proven to contract the human variant of mad cow disease from eating U.S. beef, and the governments of both countries say U.S. beef of all ages is completely safe.

Nonetheless, tens of thousands of protesters have flooded the streets to condemn South Korean President Lee Myung-bak's April deal to resume all beef imports. They have been emboldened by a boycott of parliament by Mr. Lee's political opponents.

Trade Minister Kim Jung-hoon says any beef that may come to South Korea will now face tougher inspection standards.

He says U.S. exporters have agreed to a verification system that will ensure U.S. beef bound for South Korea is from cattle younger than two-and-a-half years old. He adds there is no specific timeframe for how long the system will be in place.

U.S. beef is to be specifically labeled as certified for export to South Korea. South Korean inspectors will also gain more access to U.S. beef processing facilities, and the right to deny imports from producers deemed to have safety issues. U.S. beef exporters, who reject any claims their product is dangerous, say the export limits are "transitional" in nature.

Agriculture Minister Chung, who many speculate will lose his job next week over the beef uproar, made a plea for his country to put the issue to rest.

He says negotiators from both sides worked around the clock for five days straight to resolve this issue. He asks the people to accept the sincerity of his statements.

Within an hour of the beef announcement, thousands were gathered in Seoul to protest the modified agreement. Na Young, 31, says it does not go far enough.

She says she will continue raising her candle at the protests until the government agrees to completely renegotiate the beef agreement.

Many experts agree a renegotiation is all but impossible, because it would jeopardize a much bigger free trade deal between the two countries, and deal a severe blow to South Korea's overall credibility in making deals around the world.