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S. Korea leader 'baffled' by mad cow fears

  • Story Highlights
  • South Korea's president apologizes for failing to understand mad cow fears
  • Lee Myung-bak responding to protests over resumption of imports of U.S. beef
  • Lee said government "baffled by spread of rumors about mad cow disease"
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SEOUL, South Korea (CNN) -- South Korea's president has apologized on national television for failing to take on board concerns in his country about mad cow disease.

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South Korean farmers protest against the resumption of U.S. beef imports.

Lee Myung-bak was responding on Thursday to public protests after his government's decision last month to resume imports of U.S. beef. South Korea suspended imports of U.S. beef five years ago amid concerns of mad cow disease.

"I admit that the government has been lacking in efforts to sound out public opinion and try to seek people's understanding," he said. "I very much regret all this.

"The government will promise to be more humble in approaching the needs of the people," Lee said.

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 temporarily resumed limited imports last year -- allowing boneless beef from cattle under 30 months of age -- but that re-opening "was subject to several interruptions" and closed altogether in October 2007, U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab said last month.

South Korea and the United States reached a deal recently to re-open the South Korean market to U.S. beef products. That removed the major obstacle to U.S. congressional approval of the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement.

Lee urged the National Assembly on Thursday to ratify the agreement as soon as possible to provide fresh impetus to the sluggish Korean economy, saying it will create 300,000 jobs.

"We cannot afford to miss this opportunity for the desperate young job seekers in particular," he said.

"Public health can never be compromised under any circumstance," Lee said, but admitted his government was "baffled by the spread of unfounded rumors about mad cow disease."

In 2003, the United States exported $815 million pounds of beef and beef variety meats to South Korea, the U.S. Trade Representative said.

The U.S. beef industry has lost up to $4 billion since the market closed in 2003, according to the U.S. Meat Export Federation.

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