Korea was the fourth largest importer of U.S. beef in the world last year, according to report by the U.S. Meat Export Federation released Saturday.

This is a rapid climb in ranks considering that imports of U.S. beef to this country started only in late June last year.

In the last six months, Korea has shipped in 57,267 tons of U.S. beef. By import volume, this is a 128 percent surge on total beef imports in 2007.

Korea banned U.S. beef from entering the country in 2003 after an outbreak of mad cow disease in the U.S.

The task of resuming U.S. beef imports wasn’t easy. After newly elected President Lee Myung-bak promised to lift the ban during talks with former U.S. President George W. Bush in the U.S., nationwide protests erupted.

Only after the Korean government made several revisions to the beef import regulations, including strengthening of sanitary procedures, was the ban lifted.

The biggest importer of U.S. beef in 2008 by volume was Mexico at 396,065 tons. Canada trailed behind with 154,798 tons, while Japan was the third largest importer with 74,119 tons.

In addition, USMEF forecast that U.S. beef imports to Korea will probably speed up because major department stores here plan to start selling U.S. beef later this year.

U.S. beef is currently on sale at some of the country’s leading discount stores. Its advantage over other imported beef, including Australian, is its lower price.