Push for democratization in South Korea shifts to factories. Mood of protest spreads ... and so do strikes

The Korean people's turbulent, and sometimes violent, movement for democratization has shifted from the campuses and boulevards to the factory floors. Since late July, a wave of strikes has swept South Korea. From the coal mines to the docks, from auto parts suppliers to huge shipbuilders, Korean workers have walked out, sat in, and protested for higher wages and union rights. According to reports from Seoul, South Korea's entire automotive industry was shut down yesterday by labor disputes.

Korean newspapers report some 200 ongoing strikes, almost half starting in the last two days. In some cases, though still few in number, workers have clashed violently with riot police using tear gas to break up demonstrations.

The scale of labor unrest has prompted official warnings of intervention should the disputes seriously threaten Korea's export-dominated economy. Even opposition leader Kim Dae Jung felt compelled to issue an appeal urging that ``violence and radical behavior should be avoided and maturity should be displayed with dialogue and compromise.''

The workers' actions are viewed by most Korean observers as an inevitable outgrowth of the massive political protests which forced the government to concede to opposition demands for free elections and democratic reforms.

``A lot of us felt something had to come,'' said one Seoul corporate chairman. ``We had student unrest - now the workers. This is an extension of what we've seen throughout the summer.''

The demands of labor are basically economic - for a fairer share of Korea's much vaunted economic miracle. Wage levels are low, even in the more advanced industries like autos and shipbuilding. According to the pro-government Federation of Korean Trade Unions, average monthly wages are 300,000 won ($370). In more backward industries like textiles or footwear, wages of 100,000 won ($120) are common.

Although the current strikes are often over wages, notes one Western diplomat in Seoul, ``the key demand is the one for genuinely autonomous unions.'' Labor has been tightly controlled under the military-led regimes of the past 26 years. The unions that exist are dismissed by one Korean political analyst as ``facade unions,'' company unions established ``to suppress the labor movement.''

``There is a lot of accumulated frustration especially with the big conglomerates who have blocked labor movements up till now,'' says a Roman Catholic priest involved with the labor movement.

Groups like Hyundai, Daewoo, and Samsung, whose exports are now winning significant markets in the United States, have systematically curtailed union organization and strikes in the name of economic growth. This view, up till recently, has had the backing of the government.

During the recent strikes, the government has been generally restrained and cautious.

``Businessmen want to see a more active role from the government,'' says a senior government economic planner, ``but the government position is that this is basically between management and their employees.''

The ruling Democratic Justice Party is under strong political pressure to maintain this moderate stance. Negotiations on constitution revision with the opposition parties are ongoing and a presidential election campaign will follow. The use of force to halt strikes would deal a blow to the democratic image they have been trying to cultivate.

However, the economic official said, ``the government cannot just sit and wait only.'' Labor Minister Lee Heun Ki issued a statement on Tuesday warning that if ``the situation goes so far as to have a devastating impact on the national economy and daily life of the people, the government has no choice but to deal with such disputes by law.''

The major concern is the impact on Korea's export industries. Mr. Lee claimed that the disputes had caused a production loss of 100 billion won (about $124 million) and an export decline of about $55 million. Hyundai Motor Co., whose plant has been shut down for almost a week, said the strikes, including at plants that provide part supplies, are seriously disrupting shipments of cars to the US and other countries.

Korea has only recently turned into a trade surplus nation. Business circles, says the Seoul executive, ``fear we are losing that hard-won prize very quickly.''

The new labor movement, says the government economist, is a ``necessary process we should go through but I hope the cost is minimal.''

The future course of events appears totally unpredictable. Once again in Korea, the key is the willingness of both sides to hold serious negotiations and compromise.

One view is that conservative anti-union forces among business, backed by the government, will resist new unionization. The conservative view, says the business executive, is that there is a silent majority of workers and that ``disputes are being institigated by outside agitators.''

Labor Minister Lee pointed to ``impure elements,'' a reference to radical students who have gone to work and organized inside factories. Middle-class Koreans, a political analyst says, are concerned that the labor agitation will provoke a ``authoritarian backlash,'' threatening the broader process of democratization.

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