South Korea's president has become personally involved in damage-control efforts against a public scare about American beef imports.  Althougth he remains critical of his country's panic regarding U.S. beef, Lee Myung-bak has offered a public apology about his government's handling of the issue.  VOA Seoul Correspondent Kurt Achin has more.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak told a live nationwide television  audience Thursday, he was sorry for his government's handling of public fears related to American beef imports.

Mr. Lee says the government's efforts to listen to and understand public opinion have been insufficient and he feels that is deeply regrettable.

The South Korean president cinched a deal with U.S. President George Bush, last month, to gradually resume all imports of U.S. beef.  The imports were banned, five years ago, after an American animal was diagnosed with the fatal brain disease commonly called "mad cow disease."  Doctors say it is theoretically possible, although unlikely, for humans to contract the disease by eating tainted beef.

U.S. officials have long asserted that American beef is safe.  They were effectively backed in that view last year by the United Nations World Organization for Animal Health.  Even President Lee's liberal predecessor, Roh Moo-hyun, had promised beef imports would resume once the U.N. body had given that stamp of approval.

Nonetheless, some South Koreans perceive Mr. Lee's promised resumption of beef imports as too speedy and wide-ranging, with too little public consultation.  Thousands of protesters -- mainly young students -- have held frequent candlelight vigils in downtown Seoul, in recent weeks, the content of which has been heavily laced with themes of anger toward Mr. Lee and the United States.

Mr. Lee calls the public gatherings "heartbreaking."

He says he is responsible for all policy confusion in his new administration.  He promises, from now on, to approach policy with a more humble attitude toward the people.

The vocal minority of South Koreans conducting the beef protests have little hard science to back up their concerns of danger from American beef.  Political opponents of President Lee are backing the protests and say they try to block a much broader U.S. trade deal unless the beef imports are renegotiated.  However, they are unable to cite a single confirmed case of human infection from U.S. beef consumption and have, on occasion, used misleading statistics to press their case.

Even as he apologized, President Lee downplayed concerns about American beef.

 He says he is embarrassed at groundless fears of mad cow disease spreading through the country. 

President Lee urged lawmakers to ratify the wide-ranging free trade agreement signed last year by South Korea and the United States.  The deal would open the two countries' markets in sectors ranging from food to automobiles.  By some estimates, it would add about $20 billion a year to the two-way trade relationship.