SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea’s embattled president apologized on Thursday for a U.S. beef import deal that sparked street protests and said he will sack top aides but analysts said that might not be enough to reverse a slide in public support.
Lee Myung-bak, who easily won December’s election with pledges of pro-business reforms for the world’s 13th largest economy, now has an approval rating of less than 20 percent. He said he wants a fresh start for his four-month-old government.
“No matter how urgent a national agenda it was, we should have paid attention to what the people wanted and how they will accept it. My government and I painfully regret this,” Lee said in nationally televised address.
“I will make it a top priority to stabilize prices and look after the lives of the working people,” Lee said.
The April beef deal with the United States was meant to help a separate bilateral free-trade accord that U.S. congressional leaders threatened to block unless South Korea opened up its market to beef imports.
But widespread concern over mad-cow disease in U.S. beef quickly turned the issue into a lightning rod for a broad range of grievances that sparked protests against Lee’s government, increasingly seen as out of touch with the public.
Political commentator Yu Chang-seon said Lee’s comments are “not entirely enough” to stop the street protests that have gone on for over a month on nearly a nightly basis, but will help quiet some of the criticism of his government.
Lee received a bit of good news when about 13,000 striking truckers reached a tentative deal to end their labor stoppage over high fuel costs that ground cargo transport to a near standstill at ports in the export-dependent country.
The deal reached between the union and major transport companies calls for a 19 percent hike in pay, the transport ministry said in a statement. The truckers have called off their strike but did not say when they would return to work.
Lee is expected to replace his chief of staff and other top aides in the next several days and later announce a cabinet reshuffle involving at least three or more ministers.
Analysts said large parts of Lee’s reforms, which include privatizing state firms, tax cuts for companies and mortgage relief for low-income households, to be stalled unless he can win back public support.
Lee has also been faulted for raising expectations too high by making pledges to grow the economy by 6 percent this year, which seems well out reach because of soaring oil prices and a global slowdown.
The strike by truckers and a brief work stoppage this week by construction workers have cost the country at least $6 billion in lost business as some companies stopped production after they ran out of storage space and ran low on parts and materials.
Shares of major exporters were lower on the Seoul stock market with analysts saying the damage from the strike was expected to have a prolonged effect on companies such as LG Electronics, shares in which fell about 5 percent on Thursday.
In Washington, top U.S. and South Korean trade envoys have been trying to reach a voluntary deal that prevents beef products Koreans regards as posing a high risk of mad cow disease from being exported.
Lee said his country, once the third-biggest importer of U.S. beef, would not allow in the product without a guarantee from the U.S. government that exports would be restricted to products from younger cattle.
South Koreans fear that beef from cattle older than 30 months carries a greater risk of mad cow disease.
“As I sat up on a hill in the dark watching the lines of candles filling the city streets, I faulted myself for not ensuring the comfort of the people,” Lee said of the candle-lit rallies against his government.
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Additional reporting by Park Jung-youn, Kim Junghyun and Miyoung Kim; Editing by Jon Herskovitz and Sanjeev Miglani