Police says 80,000 protested in Seoul but organisers put the figure at 10 times that [Reuters]

South Korea's president is continuing to fend off calls for his resignation following one of the biggest protests so far against his administration.

 

On Wednesday Lee Myung-bak said he was determined to make a "fresh start" following more than a month of escalating public anger over his decision to resume imports of US beef.

 

His comments have been seen as a possible hint that a sweeping shake-up of senior government posts is about to be announced.

 

The US beef protests have become a lightning
rod for opposition to Lee's rule [AFP]
In a bid to ease public anger at his administration, reports say Lee has made an informal offer for a conservative rival to take the post of prime minister.

 

The protests were originally rooted in widespread public concerns over the alleged threat of mad cow disease – or BSE - from imported US beef.

 

Many South Koreans feel that Lee caved in to US pressure, agreeing to overturn a ban on beef imports imposed in 2003, in an attempt to help secure a free trade deal with Washington.

 

Protesters have been demanding that the deal is either renegotiated or scrapped.

 

But as demonstrations have grown they have become a lightening rod for more widespread opposition to Lee's rule.

 

On Tuesday a union representing 13,000 lorry drivers and transport workers announced it was calling a strike in protest against soaring oil prices.

 

Resignation offer

 

According to police estimates, Tuesday's protest in central Seoul drew up to 80,000 demonstrators and continued well into the early hours of Wednesday.

 

IN VIDEO

South Korea beef protests escalate

Protest organisers have put the number of people at up to 10 times that figure.

 

The protest went ahead despite an offer from the South Korean cabinet to resign en masse to take responsibility for the crisis.

 

Lee has yet to accept resignations from any senior officials, but analysts have suggested several ministers may be forced to quit the government.

 

Tuesday's demonstration came on an important anniversary in South Korea, marking 21 years since the landmark June 10 pro-democracy protests that eventually brought an end to military rule.

 

Ban lifted

 

In April, Lee agreed to lift almost all restrictions on imports of US beef, which had been banned since 2003 after the first case of mad cow disease was detected in the US.

 

Agriculture Minister Chung Woon-chun offered
to quit along with the entire cabinet [AFP]
Critics said that the decision to lift the ban was undemocratic and designed purely to clear the way for a free trade deal with the US.

 

Christine Ahn, of the Korea Policy Institute in San Francisco, told Al Jazeera that the issue had touched a sensitive nerve.

 

"They really do believe that this free trade agreement is problematic in the sense that he is trying to sell off the safety of the South Korean consumers and citizens in the interest of US corporations," she said.

 

A delegation of South Korean legislators has travelled to the US to renegotiate the deal and seek an assurance that the US will not export beef from older cattle.

 

Seoul and Washington say that US beef is safe, citing the Paris-based World Organisation for Animal Health, but protesters say they cannot trust Lee's assurances.

 

Lee was elected to office last year after campaigning on a pledge to revive South Korea's economic growth.

 

His victory marked the biggest landslide in South Korean electoral history, but with protests continuing to grow, barely six months later his approval rating has plummeted to just 20 per cent.