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S. Korean leader vows 'new beginning'

The Baltimore Sun

SEOUL, South Korea - President Lee Myung Bak pledged a "new beginning" yesterday as he contemplated reorganizing his unpopular government, which has been shaken by the biggest anti-government demonstrations in two decades.

The demonstrations against Lee started six weeks ago when students began protesting his government's decision in April to resume imports of American beef despite widespread fears of mad cow disease. They grew into a broader backlash against Lee's leadership style and his policies on everything from North Korea to education reform programs.

Speaking to a group of businessmen at his office, Lee gave his first comment on the massive rally against his 4-month-old government that brought at least 100,000 people into the streets of Seoul on Tuesday and prompted his entire Cabinet to offer to resign.

The beef protests have dealt a sharp blow to Lee, who was elected in December championing a new "pragmatic" approach to ties with Washington.

He made rebuilding South Korea's political and economic alliance with the United States his top priority, while taking a much harder line on North Korea than his predecessor, Roh Moo Hyun.

Bush administration officials have expressed hopes that Lee's firm stance on North Korea's nuclear program, which reversed South Korea's previous policy to embrace its neighbor, could persuade the North to end its nuclear program. North Korea promised to dismantle its nuclear weapons facilities under an international accord that has yet to achieve lasting results.

Both Lee and President Bush also hoped that Lee's decision in April to end the five-year ban on American beef would help win support in Congress for a free-trade agreement struck between the governments last year, thus improving relations while helping to revive the sluggish South Korean economy.

But some South Korean analysts say Lee may now come under pressure to take a less accommodating line with Washington.

Lee was himself a former student activist imprisoned by a military regime. During the current protests, many student protesters called Lee "authoritarian," and in his comments yesterday the president appeared to have understood the irony.

"As a former participant in a pro-democracy student movement myself, I had many thoughts watching yesterday's demonstration," Lee was quoted by his office. "My government intends to have a new beginning with a new resolution."

Although Lee rejected the demands for renegotiating the beef deal, he attempted to find a compromise by persuading Washington to exclude beef from cattle 30 months or older, although such shipments are allowed under the April agreement.

Young cattle are believed to be less likely to carry mad cow disease.

Despite the offer of resignation by the Cabinet, it was unclear how many members of his administration would ultimately leave office. However, Lee indicated that he was planning to reorganize his Cabinet and presidential staff to appease the protesters.

Attention was focused yesterday on whether he would ask his main conservative rival, Park Geun Hye, a daughter of the country's former military strongman, to become prime minister. Lee won the presidential nomination from his Grand National Party in a tight race against Park.

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