Top trade officials from South Korea and the United States have met again in last-ditch efforts to resolve the issue of safeguards on the export of beef from older cattle, but failed to make a breakthrough.
South Korean Trade Minister Kim Jong-hoon, emerging from the fifth round of meeting with US Trade Representative Susan Schwab in Washington on Thursday, said he will meet Schwab again in the afternoon.
Kim told reporters after the intensive six-hour meeting that " The atmosphere is good."
Gretchen Hamel, Schwab's spokeswoman said, "Things are going very well, progress is being made, and the ministers will resume talks this afternoon."
The reopening of the talks follows an apology to the nation just hours earlier by South Korean President Lee Myung-bak for causing public concern over beef imports.
Lee, who has seen his approval rating plunge to a percentage in the low 20s, pledged in a nationally televised news conference that he would not allow imports of US beef from cattle over 30 months old, saying that US President George W. Bush supported his idea in a recent telephone conversation.
"As long as the Korean people don't want (it), US beef from cattle older than 30 months would never be offered to Korean consumers," he said, "I'll obtain a firm US government guarantee regarding the issue."
The US beef industry has volunteered to label beef for up to 120 days to show the age of cattle slaughtered with the aim of easing concerns over mad cow disease.
Seoul wants Washington to guarantee the labeling for the time being through issuance of certificates under the export verification program of the US Department of Agriculture. However, Washington has resisted, fearing any excessive government involvement may encroach upon World Trade Organization regulations supporting free trade, according to officials and industry sources in Seoul.
Street rallies and candlelight vigils in protest of the US-South Korean beef deal have crippled Lee's government, sworn in February for a single five-year term, forcing the entire Cabinet and aides at the presidential office to offer their resignations.
Critics insist Lee went too far in allowing imports of beef from older cattle, which might be exposed to greater risk of mad cow disease.
The first case in the United States, which appeared in 2003, led to an halt in US beef shipments to South Korea, which was then the third largest US overseas beef market.
In March 2007, the Paris-based World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) endorsed safety measures for beef in the United States, where more than 34 million cattle were slaughtered for consumption last year.
South Korea's previous administration allowed shipments of beef from cattle of less than 30 months old, and suspended US beef imports in October last year due to bone chips detected in a shipment.
(Xinhua News Agency June 20, 2008)