SEOUL, South Korea -- South Korea lifted an import ban on American beef today, officials said, hoping to move on from a crisis that battered the pro-U.S. government with protests over mad cow disease concerns.
South Korea and the United States agreed last week to restrict U.S. beef exports to younger cattle, modifying an earlier deal that placed few restrictions on meat shipments and sparked widespread outrage against the government.
The Public Administration Ministry issued a legal notice this morning on the U.S. agreement -- the final administrative step required before imports resume, said ministry official Chang Su-wan.
Meat from cattle younger than 30 months are considered at less risk of mad cow disease.
U.S. beef was banned from South Korea in 2003 after the first case of mad cow disease was discovered in cattle there. South Korea had previously been the third-largest market for American beef. Limited imports were allowed last year before being again suspended.
Eating meat products contaminated with mad cow disease is linked to variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a rare and fatal human malady.
U.S. and South Korean officials insist American beef is safe.
Korean activists, however, have vowed to keep rallying against new President Lee Myung-bak, calling for a complete renegotiation of the original April beef accord. Lee's government has rejected a renegotiation, saying it would erode the country's international credibility.
"The observation of an agreement is very important for state-to-state relations and it is very essential to maintain national credibility on the international stage," Prime Minister Han Seung-soo said at a meeting with top ruling party leaders Wednesday, according to his office.
Some 5,300 tons of U.S. beef, shipped earlier to South Korea but held in customs and quarantine storage facilities, will first undergo inspections before being put on the market, according to the Agriculture Ministry.
Ministry spokesman Yoon Young-koo said quarantine and inspection of the meat in the storage facilities could restart as early Thursday afternoon, if importers ask for it.
Faced with daily candlelight vigils against imports of U.S. beef, President Lee replaced his top advisers and apologized to the public for the second time last week. His entire Cabinet has also offered to resign.
Lee said Tuesday that he would not tolerate any illegal, violent demonstrations against the planned resumption of beef imports.
Demonstrations have dwindled in size since some 80,000 people gathered in central Seoul two weeks ago in the largest recent protest.
On Wednesday night, about 2,500 people rallied in central Seoul to condemn the pending resumption of imports. Police sprayed fire extinguishers at activists as they used ropes to try to pull away a police bus and scuffles broke out. Police said more than 100 people were detained.
Opposition parties had also demanded the Lee government cancel the resumption, citing recent public surveys showing South Koreans still oppose the new rules on beef imports.