Page last updated at 13:03 GMT, Monday, 16 June 2008 14:03 UK

South Korea-US beef talks back on

South Korean Trade Minister Kim Jong-hoon at a news conference in Seoul on Thursday
Trade Minister Kim Jong-hoon is extending his stay in the US

South Korea's trade minister is to resume talks with his US counterpart in a last-ditch attempt to modify a controversial beef import deal.

Kim Jong-hoon had been set to return to South Korea after talks appeared to reach an impasse, but has now extended his stay, ministry officials say.

South Korea's decision to re-open its doors to US beef has angered protesters who question the safety of the meat.

The government is also facing pressure due to strikes over rising fuel costs.

Car, construction and other union workers threaten to halt work this week in anger at the plans.

The move will put President Lee Myung-bak under yet more pressure. Less than four months into his term, his popularity ratings have already nosedived.

Voluntary ban

Trade Minister Kim Jong-hoon appeared to be on his way home late on Sunday, after talks aiming to placate South Koreans' concerns over US beef ended without any agreement.

Protesters march through the streets of Seoul on 13 June 2008

But a last-minute request from the US brought Mr Kim back to Washington to resume talks with US Trade Representative Susan Schwab on Monday, said South Korean ministry sources.

"The US side suggested to us that more direct talks between the two sides are necessary," an official at the trade ministry told South Korea's Yonhap news agency.

"It is not clear whether there are any major changes in the US stance that warrant making such a request."

South Korea agreed in April to resume imports of US beef, which were suspended in 2003 after a case of BSE was detected there.

But the decision sparked massive street protests in Seoul and beyond, and Seoul now wants the US to agree to a voluntary ban on exporting beef from cattle older than 30 months - thought to be more susceptible to BSE.

Containers mount up at Uiwang container base in Uwang, South Korea, on Saturday
Containers have mounted at cargo terminals as a truckers' strike bites

President Lee has rejected demands that the entire deal be scrapped, saying it would put a separate bilateral free trade deal at risk.

The new president's popularity has plummeted over the issue, and he is now also facing a raft of new protests over rising fuel prices.

On Monday, thousands of construction industry drivers walked off the job in protest at rising oil prices.

They are joining thousands of long-haul lorry drivers, whose four-day strike has crippled major ports and inland cargo terminals.

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Country profile: South Korea
11 Apr 08 |  Country profiles

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