Via Workers World News Service
Reprinted from the Jan. 30, 1997
issue of Workers World newspaper

South Korean gov't forced to budge

By John Catalinotto

Kim Young Sam, south Korea's president, made his first concession to striking workers Jan. 20.

He agreed to meet with opposition leaders to discuss the new anti-labor law his party rammed through parliament Dec. 26. Before this concession Kim had refused any such talks.

At the same time, prosecutors announced they would postpone arresting 16 union leaders. Seven of the 16-including Korean Confederation of Trade Unions President Kwon Young Kil-have been directing the strike actions from Seoul's Myongdong Cathedral. Another five union leaders have already been arrested.

Strike leader Kwon had announced Jan. 18 that the KCTU would strike only on Wednesdays for the coming period. He said the workers would resume all-out strikes on Feb. 18 if the government didn't cancel the new labor law. It would also hold mass protests every Saturday.

Myongdong Cathedral has become a focus of street actions in Seoul, south Korea's capital. On Jan. 16 thousands of workers marched toward it until stopped by riot police firing tear gas.

On Jan. 18, thousands of workers and students supporting the strikers battled with police who were stopping people from reaching the union leaders.

Strike issues

The Kim Young Sam regime forced the workers into action by passing a set of anti-labor regulations it called a "labor reform." Among its provisions are one allowing management to lay off workers more easily and one allowing bosses to hire strike breakers.

To pass the law, Kim's ruling New Party held a 6 a.m. session of parliament without the opposition and rammed it through in minutes. Soon hundreds of thousands of workers were striking, led by the KCTU. These are unions the regime refuses to recognize.

As the strike continued, demands grew beyond repealing the new law to overturning the Kim Young Sam regime.

Widespread support for the strike forced even the official Federation of Korean Trade Unions, usually collaborators with the government, to join some of the strike actions. Students backed the workers in clashes with riot police and to oppose the regime. Farmers reportedly delivered eggs to demonstrators, who threw them at New Party offices.

In a sign that some elements in south Korea's ruling class fear the consequences of an ongoing class struggle, the Roman Catholic cardinal there appealed to the president to "resolve the current situation with dialogue."

Internationally, strikers won support from many of the world's major labor federations, including the AFL-CIO in the United States.

On Jan. 17, the Australian Council of Trade Unions called on the Australian government to condemn south Korea's new labor law, and to ask the Seoul regime to hold off arresting union leaders and begin negotiations.

There are still over 30,000 Pentagon troops in south Korea. While Washington claims neutrality in this latest labor struggle, for over 50 years it has backed the south Korean regime against its working class.

In 1980 Pentagon generals even gave the go-ahead for the Korean military to use force against a popular uprising in the southern city of Kwangju.

Before President Kim Young Sam announced his concessions, his regime had been baiting union leaders as tools of socialist north Korea. Such charges would allow Seoul to apply the vicious National Security Law, often used against any opposition because it imposes heavy penalties and requires virtually no proof.

While these charges are fabrications, it is true that students and workers in the north have demonstrated solidarity with the striking workers in the south.

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