Progress in the extended talks between the top trade officials of South Korea and the United States remains critical to President Lee Myung-bak's political efforts to avert a domestic crisis in Seoul with opponents increasingly seeking his ouster, analysts said Tuesday.
Lee, whose approval ratings have fallen below 20 percent in some media polls, is closely monitoring the talks between his trade minister Kim Jong-hoon and US Trade Representative Susan Schwab in Washington, Yonhap news agency reported.
The meetings apparently ruptured on Sunday after the two sides failed to make substantial progress on revising an April 18 agreement to reopen South Korea's market almost entirely to US beef imports.
The deal has since sparked massive protests across South Korea, culminating in a June 10 rally in Seoul where 80,000 people demanded renewed talks to address fears of mad cow disease and called on President Lee to take responsibility and resign.
Even though no American or Korean has died from eating American beef, opponents say the deal, which they claim was part of a hastily arranged political package for an April summit between Lee and his US counterpart George W. Bush allows beef parts from aged cows most susceptible to the brain-wasting disease.
The political woes further deepened in the last several days after industrial labor unions went ahead with nationwide strikes over rising fuel costs, impeding activities at major ports and construction sites.
On Tuesday, South Korean and US officials said they have decided to extend the talks in Washington aimed at revising the April agreement to restrict imports of beef from cattle over 30 months old.
"It's likely Lee will link progress in the talks with his plans to reshuffle his aides here," Kim Sung-joo, a political analyst, said, referring to a series of resignations recently offered by Cabinet members and top presidential advisors over the turmoil.
"The less successful the outcome, the more extensive the reshuffling is likely to be," Kim said.
Washington has repeatedly dismissed the chances of renegotiation, saying American beef remains safe because of an effective inspection system. Lee has also noted reworking the April deal would lead to unspecified economic losses for the country that is largely dependent on international trade.
Seoul hopes that Washington will instead endorse a voluntary export ban on beef from older animals, while Washington fears such a policy could undermine its international standing.
(Xinhua News Agency June 17, 2008)