Seuol: South Korea's president replaced three ministers yesterday amid the fallout from a much-criticised US beef import deal, but left his Cabinet largely intact despite their offer to resign to stem weeks of anti-government protests.

Lee Myung-bak has been under intense fire over an April agreement to resume imports of US beef.

The deal has led to near-daily street rallies over perceptions the country could be exposed to mad cow disease, and the demonstrations have grown to include opponents of the conservative Lee's pro-business policies.

The shakeup was aimed at "making a new start" while giving other Cabinet members another chance, presidential spokesman Lee Dong-kwan said.

Lee chose new agriculture and welfare ministers Monday because of the mishandling of the beef deal, while the education minister was replaced over alleged financial wrongdoing. The protests forced Seoul to negotiate an amendment to the import deal last month to limit shipments to beef from cattle younger than 30 months, believed less susceptible to mad cow disease. But critics have called for a total renegotiation of the import agreement, saying more safeguards are needed.

Lee has publicly apologised over the beef issue and replaced top advisers.

But it is still unclear whether his latest response will help quell lingering public concerns over the safety of US beef and satisfy the protesters.

The main opposition Democratic Party, which has been supportive of the protests that have been spearheaded by left-wing grass roots groups, said the Cabinet reshuffle falls short of what the people want.

"It is like pouring cold water on the public expectations," spokeswoman Cha Young said. The new Cabinet nominees must go through parliamentary confirmation hearings, but it remains unclear when the hearings will occur because the Democratic Party is boycotting the National Assembly over the beef deal. The legislature does not have the power to block the president's appointments.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak said he is willing to meet North Korea's leader Kim Jong-il any time if it will help end the North's nuclear programmes, news reports said yesternday.

Lee's comments came as the negotiators from six nations prepared to resume talks in Beijing to discuss ways to verify the North's recent declaration of its nuclear programmes.

"I am ready to meet ... at any time," Lee said in an interview Sunday with the BBC and Japan's Kyodo news service.

Former South Korean presidents have held summits with the North's reclusive leader Kim, but relations between the two countries turned sour when Lee - a pro-US conservative - took office in February with a pledge to get tough with Pyongyang.

The North - which conducted its first nuclear test detonation in October 2006 - recently blew up the cooling tower at its Yongbyon reactor complex to demonstrate its commitment to abandoning nuclear weapons. The destruction came in response to US concessions to remove Pyongyang from terrorism and sanctions blacklists, after the North delivered a long-awaited declaration of its nuclear programmes. Lee welcomed the North's declaration of its nuclear programme but urged the communist country to take more action to dismantle its nuclear programmes.

The six-party disarmament talks - which include the two Koreas, the US, China, Russia and Japan - were last held in October. North Korea said last week it will not take further steps to dismantle its programme until the US and its partners award fuel oil and political benefits promised under an aid-for-disarmament deal.