- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 11, 2008

SEOUL | South Korea’s entire Cabinet offered to resign Tuesday in the face of massive street protests, as the country’s increasingly unpopular president warned that Asia’s fourth-largest economy could be heading into crisis.

The protests against the government, in office barely three months, were sparked by public outcry over a deal to widen its market to U.S. beef imports and have cast a darkening cloud over President Lee Myung-bak’s plans for sweeping reform.

“The prime minister offered the Cabinet’s resignation at the regular meeting this morning [with Mr. Lee],” a spokeswoman at the prime minister’s office said, in what the local news media said was a response to the mounting demonstrations.

Tens of thousands of protesters chanting “Lee Myung-bak go away” clogged the streets of central Seoul in a candlelight rally attended by mothers toting children, radical labor groups, office workers and college students.

Police sealed off roads in the capital, stacking sand-filled shipping containers to block the main street leading to the presidential Blue House and used high-pressure water cannons to disperse any violent protesters.

Organizers said 700,000 gathered in Seoul for the largest anti-Lee rally to date. Police put the number at 80,000 while some local media estimated the crowd at 200,000 to 400,000.

Mr. Lee has warned that surging resource prices and slowing growth were pushing the economy toward its roughest patch in a decade.

News media said Mr. Lee would start a government reshuffle later this week and speculated the conservative former CEO would fire his farm, health and education ministers, along with several aides, and possibly the foreign and finance ministers.

The April beef deal with the United States was meant to help a separate bilateral free-trade accord that U.S. congressional leaders threatened to block unless South Korea opened up its market to beef imports.

But widespread concern over mad cow disease in U.S. beef quickly turned the issue into a lightning rod for a broad range of grievances against the Lee government that the public increasingly sees as out of touch with its concerns.

Mr. Lee won December’s presidential election over an unpopular liberal foe by a landslide, largely on his pledge to bring high growth back to South Korea’s export-dependent economy.

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