South Korea Rocked by Strikes: Workers Protest Labor Law Passed in Secret Session

Article excerpt

TOKYO - Enraged workers shut down auto assembly lines and shipyards across South Korea yesterday after ruling-party lawmakers slipped into the National Assembly at dawn and passed a labor-reform law with no opposition members present.

At the same secret session, the governing New Korea Party rammed through a tough national security law that restores lost powers to the once-feared agency known to the world as the Korean CIA.

The move revived memories of government strong-arm tactics in the days of military rule, with some critics predicting it will spark a season of massive anti-government demonstrations by workers and students.

"It was a despicable act," said Ha Yong-chool, a professor at the prestigious Seoul National University. Although he said, "I don't care too much about the substance of the laws," he characterized them as "almost a re-activation of past behavior under authoritarian regimes."

In formal statements announcing the move, the ruling party and the prime minister's office avoided mentioning South Korean President Kim Young-sam by name. But few doubted he orchestrated the maneuver.

Mr. Kim's NKP claimed it had no choice but to raid the National Assembly only hours after the Christmas holiday ended because opposition parties had earlier used physical force to filibuster both measures.

"In this era of democracy," an NKP statement said, "high-handed action by a minority is tantamount to the usurpation of the sovereignty of the people."

The NKP says that the labor-reform law was needed to revive South Korea's sagging export industries and that the security law will protect the country from North Korean spies.

But the government's immediate challenge is how to face down hundreds of thousands of workers who walked off the job yesterday and another 1 million or so who are expected to join the strike tomorrow.

The outlawed Korea Confederation of Trade Unions yesterday instructed its 500,000 members to shut down the 300 or so companies where they work.

They halted assembly lines of the automakers Hyundai, Kia and Ssangyong and closed several shipyards - crippling two of the nation's biggest export earners. …