The government of President Lee Myung Bak was plunged into crisis Tuesday, 3 1/2 months after he took office in a landslide win.
His entire cabinet offered to resign in the morning, and about 200,000 protesters staged a candlelight demonstration in the evening, holding banners, waving signs, and chanting slogans targeting the agreement his government reached in April to resume importing American beef.
Protesters accuse Mr. Lee of risking the health of Koreans in his eagerness to please the United States and push through a free trade agreement.
But the size and scope of the protest dramatizes problems that go far beyond that of simply beef.
The protests reflect discontent with "a lot of national issues," including high unemployment, education, and the economy, says Moon Kook Hyun, who campaigned for president on his own minority party and then was elected to the National Assembly. "The people are so disappointed. They have no other way to express themselves."
"Thousands of students are here to protest his educational policy," says a teacher, Kim Haeng Suu, accompanying other teachers and students from a nearby school. "The students say they have no voice in the system, and he only cares about education for the rich people."
South Korea excluded US beef five years ago after the discovery of mad cow disease in a single American cow, and US officials fervently deny any chance of the disease spreading to people. A Korean negotiating team has arrived in Washington, calling on the US to go along with a "voluntary" arrangement that will bar the export of US beef from cows more than 30 months old.
None of the protesters, however, appears willing to trust such a revision of the beef deal. Instead they castigate Lee and his ministers and advisers for the arrogance they perceive in his support of the chaebol, or conglomerates, which dominate the Korean economy and to appointments of rich and sell-connected favorites to high positions.
"These people came here to say something against the policy of mad cow," says Kang Jae Myung, an information technology consultant, joining the protest, he says, as "a spectator," but "the issue grows bigger and bigger."
Basically, "the Korean people are very disappointed with what the Lee Myung Bak regime has done," he says. "The economy is getting worse, and he helps the big corporations, not these people here with less money and less power."
Mr. Kang fears that leftist groups will exploit the protest, as is evident from the flags of leftist-led labor unions and student groups. "This protest will give an excuse to the leftists to take over the whole movement," he says. "President Lee should be very frank, give in to the people and say, 'I was wrong, please help me.'"
Political veterans joined the throngs of young people at the demonstration, criticizing the government for mistakes in both the beef deal and overall policy.
"The agreement is one-sided," says Song Min Soon, foreign minister under the government of Lee's predecessor, Roh Moo Hyun. "The agreement should come to the point where the Korean people can accept it."
Tuesday's protest is the largest outpouring since thousands of demonstrators took to the streets nightly for weeks nearly six years ago after two schoolgirls were crushed to death by a US Army armored vehicle.
It was also a dramatic reminder of the weeks of protest that broke out 21 years ago, on June 10, 1987, forcing a military-led government to accept the "democracy constitution" under which Koreans elect a new president every five years."
Although Lee was easily elected in December against a leftist opponent, the demonstrators demanded his resignation in a similar spirit in which protesters brought about the demise of the government of the dictatorial Chun Doo Hwan and the first election for president that year under the new Constitution.