Tens of thousands of demonstrators filled central Seoul on Tuesday to protest South Korea's decision to resume imports of U.S. beef, dealing a sharp...

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SEOUL, South Korea — Tens of thousands of demonstrators filled central Seoul on Tuesday to protest South Korea’s decision to resume imports of U.S. beef, dealing a sharp blow to President Lee Myung-bak and his efforts to improve relations with the U.S.

The protests also prompted Lee’s entire Cabinet to offer to resign Tuesday. It was unclear how many would ultimately leave their posts, and Lee indicated he probably would make some changes after just four months in office.

The broad unrest reflects worries about South Korea’s sagging growth and rising inflation. But the most heated issue has been the renewed imports of U.S. beef, which were halted locally after a U.S. outbreak of mad-cow disease in 2003.

Stoked by farm groups, unions and media reports, protesters said they feared U.S. beef would expose the public to mad-cow disease, and they accused the government of allowing new imports without insisting on rigorous inspections. Officials in both South Korea and the U.S. say American beef is safe.

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The government contends the lifting of the ban was overdue since September, when the World Organization for Animal Health ruled U.S. beef did not pose a health risk. But South Korean regulators had hesitated to act, largely because they feared incurring the wrath of nationalistic South Koreans, who have sought to exploit the issue as evidence that the new government cannot stand up to Washington.

Protesters here called Lee an “authoritarian leader,” out of touch with common people and “tone deaf” to popular sentiment. His popularity has plunged below 20 percent in many opinion polls since his government agreed to lift the ban.

For the past 40 days, Seoul has been rocked by demonstrations, which began as rallies by hundreds of students. The police put Tuesday’s crowd at 100,000, but organizers estimated it to be as large as 700,000.

Seoul reverberated with anti-government slogans until well past midnight. While people marched by candlelight, loudspeakers blared songs South Koreans used to sing during their struggle against the military dictators of the ’70s and ’80s.

The agriculture minister visited the protest site to apologize in a speech, but protesters quickly surrounded him, chanting “Traitor!” and he was forced to leave.

About 50 countries, including South Korea, Taiwan and Japan, closed their doors to U.S. beef after the first confirmed case of mad-cow disease was found in Moses Lake, Wash., in 2003.

Japan lifted the ban in late 2005, after a food-safety commission ruled U.S. safety measures were adequate, but reinstated it less than a month later after Japanese inspectors found backbone in imported veal. Japan lifted the ban again in July 2006.

Fears re-emerged in Seoul in April after it was revealed that Lee had agreed to a less-restrictive import deal with Washington than did Taiwan and Japan.

Monday, Lee sent a delegation to Washington to amend the April deal so the U.S. would not export beef from cattle older than 30 months, similar to the deals Japan and Taiwan had reached. Younger cattle are believed to be less likely to have mad-cow disease.

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