SEOUL, South Korea - South Korea lifted a ban on U.S. beef imports Thursday, with President Lee Myung-bak urging the nation to move past a dispute that has paralyzed his government with protest over mad cow disease concerns.
The ban was lifted only after South Korea won extra safeguards for an April deal that placed few restrictions on meat shipments, prompting outrage against Lee by critics who said he made too many concessions to Washington and ignored public health concerns.
Activists have led tens of thousands in weeks of street demonstrations to protest possible health risks, despite government and U.S. assurances that American beef is safe.
Lee, who only took office in February, has replaced his top aides over the mishandling of the issue and his entire Cabinet has offered to resign.
The Public Administration Ministry issued a legal notice Thursday morning on the U.S. import agreement, the final administrative step required to allow shipments to resume, said ministry official Chang Su-wan.
Some 5,300 tons of U.S. beef, shipped earlier to South Korea but held in customs storage facilities, will be the first to undergo inspections that could start Thursday afternoon before going on sale, according to the Agriculture Ministry. Fresh U.S. beef shipments were expected to arrive in South Korea in about a month, according to media reports.
Lee, who has been humbled by the protests but recently shown increasing decisiveness in seeking to end the daily street rallies, said Thursday the country should now focus on boosting the economy n his main campaign pledge that helped him win a landslide election victory last year.
"It's time for all of us to pull together our energies on the matter of reviving the economy," Lee told the Cabinet, according to his office. "If this situation continues, the common people will suffer damage."
Under the new agreement, imports to South Korea will be limited to beef from cattle younger than 30 months, believed less susceptible to 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.
Both Seoul and Washington have repeatedly insisted that U.S. beef is safe, citing the Paris-based World Organization for Animal Health.
Despite the latest agreement, Korean activists have vowed to keep rallying against Lee, 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.
Hundreds of labor union activists launched rallies Thursday near 17 storage facilities across the country, according to the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions. Police said they deployed riot units in response.
The 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 5,000 people clashed with riot police in central Seoul after the government announced it would push ahead with the beef imports.
Waving candles and chanting anti-government slogans, protesters tried to move police buses blocking roads to the presidential Blue House. Authorities used water cannons and fire extinguishers to repel the crowds, causing some injuries on both sides.
Police said they arrested about 140 protesters on charges of assaulting riot officers and illegally occupying streets.
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.