- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 29, 2008

SEOUL | Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice found herself vouching for the purity of U.S. cattle Saturday, wading into a bitter trade dispute that for South Koreans has eclipsed the long-running drama over North Korea’s nuclear activity and threatened the government of President Lee Myung-bak.

Just one day after the communist North demolished the most visible symbol of its nuclear programs, Miss Rice faced a barrage of questions about the safety of American steaks, chops and burgers. She had told reporters she hoped this issue would not distract from other matters.

“I want to assure everyone that American beef is safe,” she told a press conference with South Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan. “We will continue to work with you to have consumer confidence in that matter. We want there to be consumer confidence in American beef.”

But Mr. Yu said the beef issue probably would not go away quickly. “It will take time for that risk to be erased from the minds of the Korean public,” he said.

Activists have staged daily rallies on the streets of the capital to voice fears about possible health risks such as mad cow disease. As officials began inspecting U.S. beef on Friday before it can reach markets, hundreds of labor activists blocked customs storage facilities.

A small but loud and angry group of about 15 sign-carrying protesters gathered outside the Foreign Ministry, where Miss Rice met with Mr. Yu.

“Rice go home,” they chanted. Placards said: “Stop Rice and Mad Cow,” and “We Don’t Need U.S. Troops. We Don’t Need Mad Cows.”

U.S. beef was banned for most of the past 4 1/2 years, since the first case of mad cow disease in the U.S. was discovered in late 2003. In the wake of public outrage over plans to resume shipments of American beef, the South Korean Cabinet has offered to resign and the president has reshuffled top advisers.

Seoul agreed to resume U.S. beef imports only after American producers said they would limit shipments to meat from cattle younger than 30 months.

Traveling to Seoul after Group of Eight meetings in Japan, where North Korea dominated the agenda, Miss Rice expressed hope that South Koreans would accept official assurances there are no health issues with American beef.

In Seoul, Miss Rice did manage, briefly, to address the North Korea developments. She said Friday’s destruction of the cooling tower at the North’s main nuclear facility was significant, but that far more had to be done.

The demolition followed moves by the U.S. to end penalties against North Korea in response to the country’s submission of a long-delayed declaration of its nuclear programs.

There are suspicions that information was left out of the declaration, such as Pyongyang’s purported uranium enrichment and nuclear proliferation.

“At the end of this, we have to have the abandonment of all programs, weapons and materials,” Miss Rice said.

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