SEOUL, South Korea (AP) President Bush pledged Saturday to come up with measures to ensure that beef from older cattle considered at greater risk of mad cow disease is not exported to South Korea, Seoul's presidential office said.
Bush made the remark during a phone conversation with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, the presidential Blue House said. Lee's fledgling government has been battered by daily protests over an April agreement to resume imports of U.S. beef.
"President Bush said he sufficiently understands South Koreans' concerns and worries," it said in a statement. "In this regard, (Bush) pledged to prepare specific measures to make sure that beef from cattle aged 30 months or older is not exported to South Korea."
It did not say what those measures would be.
The White House did not respond to requests for comment on the South Korean description of the Bush-Lee conversation.
In Washington earlier, White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said Bush assured Lee that the U.S. government "is cooperating closely with the South Korean government and ready to support American cattle exporters as they reach a mutually acceptable solution with Korean importers on the beef trade."
Lee's call to Bush underscored the new South Korean leader's political dilemma caught between a pledge to his country's most important ally and the anger of South Korean citizens who have taken to the streets by the tens of thousands.
It was unclear whether Bush's promise announced by South Korea would be enough to ease the opposition to imports of U.S. beef.
Even as the two presidents spoke, a crowd estimated by police at about 40,000 rallied in central Seoul against the beef import deal, which they say fails to protect the country from mad cow disease by allowing meat from cattle of any age. Clashes with police occurred downtown as sporadic protests spilled over into the early hours today.
Protesters threw water bottles and other objects at police buses lined up to barricade streets and tried to overturn them. Police responded by hitting protesters with riot shields.
Some demonstrators were injured and taken away in ambulances. It was not immediately clear if any were seriously hurt.
South Koreans have been taking to the streets for weeks to criticize Lee over the deal, claiming he ignored their concerns, behaved arrogantly and gave in to U.S. demands.
Both the South Korean and U.S. governments have repeatedly said that American beef is safe to eat. Protesters, however, have demanded the agreement be scrapped or renegotiated.
Lee said Friday that demanding a renegotiation would spark a trade dispute with Washington that could affect South Korea's export-driven economy, especially its key auto and semiconductor industries.
South Korea and the United States concluded a landmark free trade agreement last year which still awaits ratification by their respective legislatures.
The beef dispute has turned into a political crisis for Lee, who took office just over three months ago on a wave of popularity for promising to revitalize the economy.
But his approval ratings have nose-dived since the April 18 beef pact. A poll published in a major newspaper days ago put his public support at less than 20 percent.
U.S. beef has been banned from South Korea for most of the past four and a half years since the first case of mad cow disease in the U.S. was discovered in late 2003. Two subsequent cases were found.
Scientists believe the disease spreads when farmers feed cattle recycled meat and bones from infected animals. The U.S. banned recycled feeds in 1997.
In humans, eating meat products contaminated with the illness is linked to variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a rare and fatal malady.