S.Koreans Have Beef With President

SEOUL, South Korea -- President Lee Myung-bak apologized Thursday to South Koreans over a beef import accord with the United States that has sparked fears of mad cow disease and sent his popularity plummeting in his first months in office.

Lee's nationally televised address was aimed at trying to calm public anger over the April 18 deal. It does not affect the agreement's terms, which call for Seoul to resume full-scale imports of American beef for the first time in more than four years.

Lee said the government should have tried harder to sell the deal to the public before going forward.

"The government lacked efforts to seek sufficient understanding and collect opinions from the people," Lee said. "I humbly accept the point that the government neglected to fathom the people's mind."

The beef accord has come under heavy criticism for allegedly failing to protect South Koreans against mad cow disease. The deal calls for Seoul to scrap nearly all restrictions that the country, under Lee's predecessor, imposed on American beef over mad cow concerns.

Lee has defended the deal as being based on scientific grounds, repeatedly assuring the public that U.S. beef is safe.

Still, those efforts failed to stop the spread of mad cow worries among South Koreans, fanned in large part by sensational media reports. Thousands of people have held a series of candlelight vigils in recent weeks urging the government to scrap the deal.