S. Korea Strike: From Tear Gas to Politics

Protests reduced as President Kim and union leaders move to talk stage

South Korea's bitter labor conflict is moving off the streets, with the government and unions now maneuvering for political gain.

After more than three weeks of daily strikes and rallies - gatherings that sometimes ended in clashes with police - union leaders announced over the weekend that workers would walk off the job only on Wednesdays. And President Kim Young Sam said he would meet today with political opposition leaders to discuss the dispute.

Unions and the government are at odds over a new law that will make it easier for employers to fire workers and replace those who strike. President Kim says South Korea's labor market must be more flexible. Union officials say job security and labor rights should not be sacrificed as this country joins the ranks of the world's most economically developed states.

This struggle has its precursors in the bitter disputes between workers and managers that took place in America and Europe in recent decades - conflicts that in some countries ultimately undermined the influence of organized labor.

The difference is that union leaders here seem to have recognized early on that they should avoid confrontation in favor of public persuasion. The focus of their efforts is Kim's government, not the companies that employ them.

In cutting back the scale of the strikes, union leaders said they wanted to give the government time to consider their demands that the new labor laws, passed Dec. 26 in a secret session of the National Assembly attended only by the ruling party, be nullified. They promised a general strike on Feb. 18 if no progress is achieved.

"We want to conserve energy," says Yoon Youngmo, international secretary of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, a technically illegal group that is running the protests. "In the interim we will organize other sectors so that this [dispute] will develop into a political and social issue."

Political fallout

Analysts say the unions have already partially achieved this goal because their protest has struck a chord with Koreans who are frustrated with Kim, who was elected in 1992 as the country's first civilian president after three decades of military-led dictatorship.

"These labor strikes are unusually successful because many white-collar workers have joined the strikes and many intellectuals, professors, and religious leaders have supported them," says Byon Yong-Shik, an editor at the Chosun Ilbo, the country's leading newspaper.

With one year remaining in his five-year term, Kim has rung up some impressive accomplishments. He has exposed high-level corruption, put two former military rulers on trial, and presided over virtually unprecedented local elections. But at the same time, his popularity ratings have steadily declined.

He is barred by law from seeking a second term and it is by no means certain that a candidate from Kim's ruling New Korea Party will prevail in presidential elections set for this December.

One reason Kim has faltered is that his achievements have not resulted in tangible gains for the average voter, Mr. Byon adds. People credit Kim with certain reforms, but ask themselves " 'So what? What benefit is there for me?' " the editor says.

Lhee Ho-Jeh, a political scientist at Korea University in Seoul, says that in some ways Kim is being punished for doing the right thing. Some of his anticorruption measures, for instance, have made life more difficult for wealthier Koreans, costing him support.

The president has also been burdened by South Korea's emergence in recent years as a fully industrialized state. This transition has come at a price, since the rate of the economy's growth has slowed, causing many workers to worry about rising unemployment.

"His unpopularity is not fair," says Professor Lhee.

Kim's one-man show

Even so, Kim has alienated Koreans with his occasionally high-handed manner. "He doesn't try to persuade people," Lhee adds. "His style is a critical weakness."

Kim's political opponents have tried to exploit this apparent failing, branding him an autocrat. "The way he handles the state is very undemocratic.... It's just a one-man show," says Yang Sung Chul, an opposition member of the National Assembly.

Kim has defended the passage of the labor law revisions, saying that changes in the country's labor market are necessary for Korean companies to compete in an increasingly globalized economy. His agreement yesterday to meet with opposition leaders over the issue is the first sign of a willingness to compromise with the strikers.

Popular frustration with Kim over the labor issue is also linked to this country's democratic evolution. Labor leaders have been reminding the government that democracy is more than holding presidential elections - it is also allowing societal institutions like labor unions to operate relatively freely.

While this country's existing labor system guarantees many workers job security, it also places restrictions on union activities. Laws bar multiple unions and restrict their involvement in politics, rules that conflict with standards set by the International Labor Organization.

Last year, when South Korea joined the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development - also known as the club of rich nations - it promised to rewrite its laws to conform with ILO standards. "That promise has not been met, in the most visible way," says Phillip Fishman, an AFL-CIO official visiting South Korea this week with a delegation of international labor leaders.

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