SEOUL, South Korea — America's chief diplomat found herself vouching for the purity of U.S. cattle Saturday, wading into a bitter trade dispute that for South Koreans has eclipsed the long-running drama over North Korea's nuclear activity and threatened the government of President Lee Myung-bak.
Just one day after the communist North demolished the most visible symbol of its nuclear programs, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice faced a barrage of questions about the safety of American steaks, chops and burgers. She had told reporters she hoped this issue would not distract from other matters.
"I want to assure everyone that American beef is safe," she told a news conference with South Korea's foreign minister, Yu Myung-hwan. "We will continue to work with you to have consumer confidence in that matter. We want there to be consumer confidence in American beef."
Fears won't disappear anytime soon
But Yu said the beef issue probably would not go away quickly.
"It will take time for that risk to be erased from the minds of the Korean public," he said.
For many South Koreans, who have lived with threats from their neighbor for five decades, the nuclear issue is of less concern than is Seoul's agreement to lift a ban on American beef imports in April as a way to restore strained ties with Washington.
Activists have staged daily rallies on the streets of the capital to voice fears about possible health risks such as mad cow disease. As officials began inspecting U.S. beef on Friday before it can reach markets, hundreds of labor activists blocked customs storage facilities.
A small but loud and angry group of about 15 sign-carrying protesters gathered outside the South Korean Foreign Ministry, where Rice met with Yu.
"Rice go home," they chanted. Placards said, "Stop Rice and Mad Cow," and "We Don't Need U.S. Troops. We Don't Need Mad Cows."
Police estimated that about 13,000 people held the latest candlelight rally. Occupying a thoroughfare near city hall, they waved candles and anti-government signs, sang solidarity song and chanted slogans. A barricade of police buses blocked protesters from marching toward the presidential office. Earlier rallies drew 80,000 people at their peak, but have since dwindled.
U.S. beef banned since 2003
U.S. beef was banned for most of the past 4 1/2 years, since the first case of mad cow disease in the U.S. was discovered in late 2003. In the wake of public outrage over plans to resume shipments of American beef, the South Korean Cabinet has offered to resign and the president has reshuffled top advisers.
Seoul agreed to resume U.S. beef imports only after American producers said they would limit shipments to meat from cattle younger than 30 months. These animals are believed less susceptible to mad cow disease. The restriction was considered a transitional step that will be lifted when conditions change in South Korea.
Traveling to Seoul after meetings in Japan, where North Korea dominated the agenda, Rice expressed hope that South Koreans would accept official assurances there are no health issues with American beef.
"We hope that in time the South Korean people will listen to that and will be willing to listen to what their government is saying and what we're saying," she told reporters on her plane. "The U.S. believes strongly in the safety of its product."
More to be done in N. Korea
In Seoul, Rice did manage, briefly, to address the North Korea developments. She said Friday's destruction of the cooling tower at the North's main nuclear facility was significant, but that far more had to be done.
The demolition followed moves this past week by the U.S. to end penalties North Korea in response to the country's submission of a long-delayed declaration of its nuclear programs.
"I expect that the North will live up to the obligations that it's undertaken, to take those concerns seriously and to address them," Rice said. There are suspicions that information was left out of the declaration, such as Pyongyang's alleged uranium enrichment and nuclear proliferation.
"At the end of this, we have to have the abandonment of all programs, weapons and materials," she said.
After seeing Yu, Rice met with Lee and briefed him on recent progress on the nuclear issue. Lee told her that the two countries should work closely to get North Korea to give up all nuclear weapons and programs, a statement from the presidential Blue House said.
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