On the second day of a nationwide general stoppage, the tide appeared to be turning against the strikers who have been staging intermittent actions for three weeks in protest against legislation which removes job security and denies the freedom to form unions.
A march by tens of thousands of pro-union demonstrators was broken up by police firing tear-gas canisters, but many workers ignored the strike call, and government officials hinted that union organisers were Communists inspired by the Stalinist regime of North Korea.
"North Korea is agitating workers to topple the government," Choi Byung Kook, a public prosecutor, said at a televised news conference. "If the unrest drags on it will give North Korea an opportunity for revolutionary struggle. If the workers do not stop their illegal strikes immediately, the government will act in a firm and resolute way to protect the national security."
The first of the union leaders was arrested late on Tuesday night, and police had warrants for 19 others, including seven who were camping in the grounds of Myongdong cathedral in Seoul. Thousands of riot police have sealed off the area every evening this week and there have been frequent and sometimes violent standoffs with demonstrators, including students, housewives and white-collar workers, as well as striking union members.
The strike leaders have promised to continue their action until the government withdraws revisions to the labour laws, passed in secret at a dawn session of the National Assembly on Boxing Day. Their cluster of tents, at the rear of the brick cathedral, is guarded by followers armed with iron bars, and police have so far refrained from enforcing arrest warrants. Yesterday, however, at a cabinet meeting chaired by the Prime Minister, Lee Soo Sung, the government indicated that enough was enough. "The government's position [is] that the arrest of the leaders of illegal strikes cannot be delayed," a statement by the Cabinet Office announced, "even with some negative effects and repercussions."
This hard-line approach has been extended to delegates from the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, who are in Seoul in support of their Korean counterparts. The four-man delegation, including two British trade unionists, was visited by police last Monday night and warned that their activities were illegal.
The government estimates that production losses during the three-week strike have cost the country $2.4bn (pounds 1.5bn), principally in heavy industries such as shipbuilding where the unions are strongest.
Yesterday, the Korean won sank to its lowest point for six years, at less than 850 to the dollar. But in service industries and in public transport, the strikes have been largely symbolic, partly in order to avoid alienating the public, and partly due to a poor turnout.
Last Tuesday, the officially approved Federation of Korean Trade Unions began a 36-hour stoppage, and was joined yesterday by its former rival, the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, an illegal and more militant body. The strike leaders had been predicting a turnout of 1 million, and troops had been mobilised to drive subway trains and man telecommunications equipment. But, apart from a slight shortage of taxis, the two-day strike has made virtually no difference to daily life in Seoul.
In the south-east city of Ulsan, non-union workers bulldozed through barricades to enter the Hyundai motor factory. But only three of Seoul's 88 bus companies came out and the government put the number of strikers nationwide at 110,000, compared with a union estimate of 630,000.