South Koreans are drawing political battle lines about the government's plan to resume imports of American beef. Officials and scientists in both countries say consuming U.S. beef is safe. But a media campaign, driven mainly by trade concerns, is fueling panic among many South Koreans. VOA Seoul Correspondent Kurt Achin has more.

Liberal political parties and citizens' groups called on South Korean President Lee Myung-bak Tuesday to cancel his promise to resume imports of U.S. beef to this country.

With parliament hearings on American beef imports expected to start Wednesday, South Korean activists and politicians are redoubling their efforts to block the return of U.S. beef, based on a view that it is unsafe.

South Korea banned American beef imports in 2003, after a single case of the fatal brain condition commonly referred to as "mad cow disease" was discovered in a U.S. animal. Scientists say the disease can infect humans who consume tainted meat.

Last May, the United Nations effectively backed Washington's assertions that American beef is safe. South Korean President Lee agrees and promised U.S. President George Bush last month Seoul would fully reopen its beef market. The beef ban has been an obstacle that American lawmakers warn could be fatal to a much broader trade deal between the two countries.

South Korean beef producers and their political allies have pressed ahead with assertions that U.S. beef poses a public health threat. Their media messages have become indistinguishably intertwined with warnings about the economic impact of U.S. beef imports on South Korean livelihoods.

Thousands of South Koreans have been holding anti-U.S.-beef candlelight vigils in downtown Seoul on a near-nightly basis since Friday. Last week, a prominent South Korean TV documentary asserted Koreans possess a special gene that makes them more susceptible to mad cow disease.

Editorials in major South Korean newspapers have criticized opponents of American beef for what they describe as scaremongering. South Korean officials have tried to allay public health concerns, with lengthy news briefings broadcast live on several nationwide television networks.

Nonetheless, South Korea's main opposition parties say they will use every tool at their disposal to nullify the U.S. beef import deal - a move which could have a serious impact on the bigger American-South Korea trade picture.