SEOUL, South Korea - South Korea's entire Cabinet offered to resign Tuesday following a public uproar over the planned resumption of U.S. beef imports, despite concerns of mad cow disease.
Prime Minister Han Seung-soo tendered his resignation along with other government ministers to President Lee Myung-bak, according to the presidential Blue House and the prime minister's office.
Government ministers conveyed their intention to step down to Han during a weekly Cabinet meeting earlier Tuesday, said Blue House spokesman Lee Dong-kwan.
He did not say whether the president would accept the resignations.
Eight senior presidential secretaries offered to quit last week to take the responsibility for the beef dispute, but Lee has not decided whether to accept their resignations.
South Korea agreed in April to lift almost all quarantine restrictions that had been imposed on U.S. beef over fears of mad cow disease. The decision has sparked weeks of fierce protests amid perceptions the government did not do enough to protect citizens.
The beef issue has confounded the conservative, pro-U.S. Lee, who took office in February after a landslide election victory in December on pledges to boost the economy and bolster ties with Washington.
Both Seoul and Washington say U.S. beef is safe, citing the Paris-based World Organization for Animal Health. Protesters say they can't trust what Lee says.
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.
Lee dispatched several delegations of officials to Washington on Monday to help defuse the crisis and seek assurances that the U.S. will not import beef from cattle older than 30 months, even though that is allowed under the agreement.
Younger cattle are believed to be less susceptible to mad cow disease.
Lee hinted at a Cabinet reshuffle Monday when he met Cardinal Nicholas Cheong Jin-suk to seek advice on the beef dispute.
Lee said the National Assembly should end its fighting over the beef issue soon so that it can conduct hearings on new appointees in the event he reshuffles his Cabinet, according to the presidential spokesman.
Thousands of South Koreans have staged rallies against the beef deal. Protests early Sunday turned violent.
Also Monday, police asked prosecutors to seek arrest warrants for three protesters for violence in recent rallies, said an officer at the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency without giving his name, citing office policy.
Earlier in the day, a South Korean man died two weeks after setting himself on fire during a rally, according to Hangang Sacred Heart Hospital in Seoul.
Another protester set himself ablaze in a protest last week but his condition was not life-threatening, said Kim Tae-hyung, an official at a civic group that has organized demonstrations.