S Korea threatens to expel union mission

An international trade union mission led by the former head of the Amalgamated Engineering Union, Bill Jordan, has been threatened with possible deportation from South Korea next week, raising fears of a diplomatic rift between Seoul and European governments.

Mr Jordan will arrive in Seoul on Monday, accompanied by nine fellow delegates of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), to express support for South Korean unionists who are striking in protest at a recently passed labour law. On Thursday, a more junior four-man ICFTU mission left Seoul after being threatened with expulsion for speaking out in support of the strikers. Diplomats in Seoul fear that any action taken against Mr Jordan's delegation could escalate to an international level what has so far been a domestic crisis.

According to a government spokesman, private meetings with striking trade unionists - who are evading arrest warrants in the grounds of Seoul's Catholic cathedral - will not be considered illegal, but public speeches, press conferences or "activities disturbing public peace and order" will not be tolerated.

"Immigration officers will explain our laws to the new visitors on their arrival in view of the illegal activities by the [previous delegation of] four foreign union leaders," Yu Byong Rhang, director-general in charge of immigration at the South Korean Justice Ministry, said yesterday. "There will first be warnings if they violate laws and, if they continue not to heed them, then they will be deported."

Members of last week's ICFTU delegation addressed huge rallies in Seoul, which has seen almost daily demonstrations since the controversial labour law was rammed through the National Assembly at a secret session on Boxing Day. The number of stoppages has gone down since Wednesday's general strike call, but yesterday a worker was seriously injured after setting himself alight, the second such incident in eight days.

The new legislation abolishes workers' legal protection against lay offs, and delays the legalisation of unofficial unions. Four leaders of the illegal Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), an ICFTU affiliate, have been arrested.

Seoul argues that the new law will increase Korean competitiveness. But it is regarded in some Western capitals as a betrayal of promises to liberalise union law made by Korea when it joined the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) last December.

"Both the content of the legislation and the way in which it was passed raise deep concerns for the democratic process and are a disturbing throw back to the era of military rule in Korea," the ICFTU said in a statement.

"I won't do anything that will make resolution of the situation more difficult," Mr Jordan, the ICFTU's secretary general said last night. "But I have to do my job. Our affiliated [members] in Korea pay me to represent them at the international level and give advice in their country."

Foreign embassies in Seoul have expressed their concerns about the consequences of any legal action against the delegates. One Western diplomat said: "If they behave reasonably and are deported, it's the kind of thing on which foreign governments would have to speak out."

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