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US-South Korea beef dispute escalates

Korean opposition protests the reopening of markets to US imports, threatening a free-trade agreement

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Mounting protest in South Korea against the import of American beef signifies deepening opposition to the conservative rule of President Lee Myung Bak and could jeopardize a free-trade agreement seen as vital for relations between the two countries.

Experts here and in Seoul offer that view as Mr. Lee's foes battle in the National Assembly in Seoul and in Seoul's downtown streets against his government's resolve to live up to the deal, reached last month, to open up to US beef imports for the first time since they were banned five years ago after the diagnosis of "mad cow" disease in an American cow. Before the ban, Korea was the third-largest export market for US beef, which sells for far less than beef produced by Korean farmers.

The protest, which has escalated over the past month, appears to have caught officials in both countries by surprise. Many said that US-Korean relations were vastly improving after strains under the left-leaning presidents who ruled Korea for a decade before Mr. Lee's landslide election victory in December.

"Groups in Korea have made a big deal of beef for reasons that have nothing to do with science," says Victor Cha, director of Asian studies at Georgetown University in Washington and former Asia expert for the National Security Council. "The way the leftists have gone after Lee on beef, it's not beef or science at all. The left has got hold of this and beat him with it."

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