Kim at bay on South Korea's day of decision

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The Independent Online
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."

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