SEOUL, South Korea (CNN) — South Korea will open its market to most U.S. beef, a senior government official said Thursday, according to state media.
Thousands of people have taken to the streets of the South Korean capital in protest at the deal
South Korea banned imports of U.S. beef in 2003 amid concerns over a case of mad cow disease in the United States. The ban closed what was then the third-largest market for U.S. beef exporters.
It resumed limited imports last year — allowing boneless beef from cattle under 30 months of age — but that re-opening was subject to interruptions and closed altogether in October 2007.
A deal that South Korea and the United States struck last month bans the import of high-risk materials, like tonsils, brains, spinal cord marrow and a section of the small intestine, Agriculture Minister Chung Woon-chun said Thursday, according to South Korea’s Yonhap news agency. These parts pose the greatest risk of transmitting mad cow disease to humans.
The ban will be lifted within a few days, once the government’s new import rules have been published.
The pending resumption of U.S. beef imports hasn’t been without political costs for President Lee Myung-bak. He apologized to the nation last week for failing to fully understand concerns about mad cow disease.
In downtown Seoul, thousands of people have regularly staged protests, chanting “We don’t want crazy cows,” since the deal to revive beef imports was announced.
And the main opposition party has taken up the fight.
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“We will be forced to make a critical decision if the government pushes through its plan to announce resumption of beef imports,” said Sohn Hak-kyu, leader of the main opposition United Democratic Party, Yonhap reported.
“If the government and the ruling party ignore this warning, we will come up with every possible measure to stop them.”
The opposition has already filed a suit to suspend implementation of new beef import terms, according to Yonhap.
Lee’s ruling Grand National Party (GNP) is working to soothe tensions, saying that American beef is safe to eat and that adequate safety precautions have been taken.
“The government has tried its best to free the public from unnecessary concerns, and sufficient countermeasures have been prepared,” said Lee Hahn-koo, the party’s chief policymaker, Yonhap reported.
When South Korea and the United States reached the deal in April to re-open the South Korean market, they removed the major obstacle to U.S. congressional approval of the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (FTA).
Lee urged the National Assembly this month to ratify the agreement as soon as possible to provide fresh impetus to the sluggish Korean economy, saying it will create 300,000 jobs.
But the opposition has promised to fight the FTA until the beef pact is nullified.
In 2003, the United States exported $815 million pounds of beef and beef variety meats to South Korea. The U.S. beef industry has lost up to $4 billion since the market closed, according to the U.S. Meat Export Federation.