Kim at bay on South Korea's day of decision

It may prove to be a decisive moment for South Korea. As the labour crisis enters its third week, President Kim Young Sam's government faces a dilemma. Will it use force to arrest union leaders, provoking violence and alienating the public? Or will it choose to stand its ground and face the biggest and costliest general strike in the country's history?

The consequences of the first option were made clear yesterday in clashes between police and trade unionists outside Myongdong Roman Catholic cathedral in central Seoul. Within its grounds, seven trade- union leaders, wanted by police over infringement of new labour laws, were in tents, guarded by hundreds of supporters. Since Christmas the unionists have made regular and noisy processions through the adjoining neighbourhood, Seoul's most fashionable shopping district. When 1,000 riot police blocked their way yesterday, they pelted them with stones and attacked them with iron pipes. The street was turned into a battlefield of tear gas and weeping shoppers.

If, as many unionists fear, police violate the cathedral sanctuary and take the seven men by force, the reaction would be many times more violent. But the main alternative is equally dismal: unless there is a last-minute settlement, tomorrow will bring a redoubled strike, involving as many as 1.2 million workers in some of the country's key industries.

This would be a nightmare for any government, but it is difficult to feel much sympathy for President Kim and his New Korea Party (NKP). The trouble began on Boxing Day when, after lengthy delaying tactics by the opposition, two troublesome items of legislation were finally passed by the National Assembly. The first was a revision of the labour law, allowing employers new freedom to lay off workers and break up strikes. The second was a revision of the internal-security act, granting expanded powers to the National Security Planning Agency, the former Korean CIA.

Both pieces of legislation have their supporters; what provoked fury was the manner of their passing - at dawn, in secret, when the members of the opposition, who had persistently blocked the law, were, literally, asleep.

The strikes began that day; at their peak, before easing off over the New Year, 350,000 workers were out, including journalists, assembly-line personnel and employees of credit-card companies. So far the strikers have been affiliates of an illegal union, the 500,000-strong Korean Confederation of Trade Unions. But now 1.2 million members of the authorised, and habitually docile, Federation of Korean Trade Unions are threatening to join the action with a two-day stoppage which would affect public transport, the mint and the telecommunications network.

By Saturday the strikes were reckoned to have cost $2bn (pounds 1.25bn) in lost production, and $345m in exports. The new laws have been condemned by international labour organisations and human-rights groups, and concern has been expressed by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, to which South Korea was admitted last month.

The government says flexibility is essential if the country is to remain competitive in the face of shrinking growth. The intelligence service's new powers have been justified by the incident in September when men from a North Korean submarine came ashore undetected. But to many, they are worrying signs of a regime that sends confusingly mixed signals about its commitment to South Korea's young democracy. "They will come in, with the police and the army," predicted a trade unionist at the cathedral yesterday. "They will come and outnumber us in the middle of the night."

Low-wage Wales, page 15

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
One Direction's Zayn Malik gazes at a bouquet of flowers in the 'Night Changes' music video
people
News
people
News
'Free the Nipple' film screening after party with We Are The XX, New York, America - 04 Feb 2014
news
Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished
tvReview: The latest episode was a smidgen less depressing... but it’s hardly a bonza beach party
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Manager

£35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity to...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Manager - Production

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Trainee Managers are required to join the UK's...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Manager

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will maximise the effective...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + uncapped commission : SThree: Hello! I know most ...

Day In a Page

The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss
Tony Blair joins a strange and exclusive club of political leaders whose careers have been blighted by the Middle East

Blair has joined a strange and exclusive club

A new tomb has just gone up in the Middle East's graveyard of US and British political reputations, says Patrick Cockburn