Page last updated at 06:26 GMT, Monday, 9 June 2008 07:26 UK

S Korea sends beef envoys to US

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak (file image)
Lee Myung-bak's popularity has plummeted over the row

The South Korean government is sending delegates to the US for talks on a controversial beef deal that has triggered weeks of protests.

The envoys will meet US officials to discuss changes to the April deal, under which South Korea agreed to resume US beef imports.

Protesters say the move does not protect them from mad cow disease, despite assurances to the contrary.

President Lee Myung-bak's popularity has plummeted over the issue.

Last week, the ruling party suffered a heavy defeat in its first electoral test since Mr Lee took office - in sharp contrast to its election victory late last year.

Some reports suggest a Cabinet reshuffle could be imminent.

More protests

The beef issue has sparked weeks of demonstrations in the capital, Seoul, and led to scores of arrests.

Police spray protestors in S. Korea

South Korea used to be a major market for US beef, but banned most imports in 2003 after BSE was found in cattle there.

In April Mr Lee's government agreed to relax most of the restrictions - a move linked to approval of a bilateral free trade deal.

As protests escalated, the government asked the US to stop exports from cattle aged more than 30 months in a bid to assuage popular concern.

On Saturday, Mr Lee and US President George W Bush held telephone talks on the issue, with Mr Bush reportedly agreeing to the request, according to South Korean media.

The South Korean delegates - a presidential envoy and ruling party lawmakers - will seek assurances of this commitment when they arrive in the US later this week, media reports said.

The protests, meanwhile, show no sign of easing off.

On Saturday, tens of thousands of people demonstrated in Seoul over the issue. More demonstrations are planned for later in the week.

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