9

Korean labor law reform

Evaluation and future prospects

Kim Soh-Yeong

Because of heavy legal regulation of labor relations in some countries, legal change is often the principal means for introducing flexibility, whereas in other countries flexibility may be introduced through collective bargaining or personnel managment.

(Cook 1998:32)


Introduction

Since the democratization of Korean society began in 1987, industrial relations in Korea have undergone a rapid transformation. The period between 1987 and 1997 was marked by growing resistance to the pattern of authoritarian labor relations that had predominated in the era of rapid development, and by efforts to build a new dynamic of industrial relations. At the same time, the confrontational habits of the earlier period persisted and industrial relations were strained with frequent and costly labor disputes.

After labor and management recognized the futility of such confrontational tactics, they initiated efforts to promote cooperative labor- management relations in the mid-1990s, with the Industrial Relations Reform Committee playing a key role. Much of this evolution can be directly traced to processes and pressures from globalization and internationalization. The Korean labor legislation, which had not been significantly changed in the 43 years since its enactment in 1953, was not suitable to cope with the challenges of the new business environment. As a result, labor laws were drastically revised in 1997 to improve labor-related systems and to enhance basic labor rights.

Against this backdrop, the Korean economy stalled in 1997 under the so-called International Monetary Fund (IMF) crisis. With the advent of the economic crisis, labor issues once again emerged as one of the key focal points of attention. Soon thereafter, the major stakeholders formed the Tripartite Commission to try to formulate a national consensus so as to overcome the economic crisis. Shortly after Korea agreed to the IMF program in late 1997, a historic consensus was reached among labor, man-

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