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South Korean leaders mobilise army in face of national strike

The government of President Kim Young Sam yesterday showed signs of stepping back in a three-week-old labour dispute, but soldiers were being mobilised to run public services as South Korean workers prepared themselves for the first day of their biggest ever national strike.

Ceremonies marking the beginning of the strike were held at midnight last night in 900 firms nationwide. From 4am today, members of the officially recognised Federation of Korean Trade Unions were to embark on a range of stoppages from full strikes to work to rule.

Tomorrow they will be joined by the unauthorised Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, and union leaders anticipate a turn-out of one million workers in hospitals, hotels, shipyards, television companies, public transport, taxis, telecommunications and banks. It will be the first time since 1987 that both blue- and white-collar workers have united, when widespread civil unrest forced the then military dictatorship to call democratic elections.

Two and a half thousand soldiers were being prepared to run trains and telecom offices yesterday, and there were further confrontations between trade unionists and police outside Myongdong Roman Catholic cathedral in Seoul, where seven strike leaders are seeking sanctuary against arrest warrants. A few dozen banking and shipyard workers shouted anti-government slogans at riot police blocking their route to the cathedral. But the demonstration lacked the ferocity of previous encounters, and the strikers eventually dispersed of their own accord.

Twenty-thousand workers in the Hyundai motor plant rallied in the city of Ulsan. Speaking in Seoul, the strike leader, Kwon Young-gil said: "President Kim must decide what is more important: saving his face or the national economy."

A senior figure in the New Korea Party (NKP), Lee Hong-koo, made a highly symbolic visit to the cathedral yesterday morning, and met the Cardinal of Seoul, Stephen Kim, in an apparent attempt to soften the uncompromising image which the government has so far projected during the dispute.

The argument is about two legislative revisions - to a labour act and to a national security law, which were railroaded through the National Assembly in a secret session of NKP representatives on Boxing Day. The former gives new freedom to companies to lay off workers; the latter expands the powers of the Agency for National Security Planning, the former Korean CIA.

The unions are refusing to talk to the government until the bills are scrapped, along with the warrants for the arrest of their leaders. The visit of Mr Lee, the chairman of the NKP and in the running to succeed President Kim in elections in December, may represent a first attempt by the government to find an elegant way of stepping down.

Much now depends on the effectiveness of this week's general strike. Much of the action taken so far appears to be more symbolic than damaging, and while the unions put the numbers of strikers yesterday at 195,000, the government estimate was 65,000. A large turn-out today and tomorrow will put renewed pressure on President Kim, but also risks alienating the public which so far appears moderately sympathetic to the strikers.

Significantly, the Seoul stock exchange has been virtually unaffected by the disturbances, and the share price of the beleaguered Hyundai Motor Corporation actually rose by 1.79 per cent yesterday.