Kim Concedes on Controversial Law

SEOUL, South Korea -- South Korean President Kim Young-sam, conceding public anxiety and damage to the economy, agreed Tuesday to send a controversial labor law back to parliament in a stunning concession to the opposition.

At a meeting with his chief political rivals, Kim expressed sorrow for output losses of billions of dollars through strikes sparked by forced passage of the controversial bill.

Production losses from stoppages have been estimated at more than $3 billion.

Labor strife had defeated the law's aim of revitalizing a sluggish economy, he said.

Kim also agreed to reopen debate on another controversial law reviving a once notorious domestic spy agency.

And, in a further about-face, he told heads of three main political parties he would instruct officials to suspend arrest warrants served on strike leaders, seven of whom are sheltering in Seoul's Myongdong Cathedral.

According to an account of the meeting by opposition leader Kim Dae-jung of the National Congress for New Politics, Kim also indicated the outlawed Korean Confederation of Trade Unions should be recognized.

Multiple trade union representation is a major demand of international labor organizations.

Kim Dae-jung welcomed Kim's retreat from his hardline stance. But the confederation said strikes would continue if the government did not declare the law null and void.

Confederation president Kwon Young-kil, holed up in the cathedral, told a news conference: "Talks today have not solved any of the basic problems."

He threatened to bring out 200,000 workers in all sectors except public services Wednesday.

But in a further sign of compromise, police eased their security cordon around the cathedral.

Kim's dramatic climbdown followed a decision by the confederation to call off indefinite stoppages and limit industrial action to one day each week.

"Anything can be discussed in parliament again, whether it is the labor law or the law on the Agency for National Security Planning," a spokesman quoted Kim as saying during a lunch meeting in the Presidential Blue House.

Both laws were rammed through parliament in a six-minute dawn session on Dec. 26 while opposition deputies slept.

President Kim previously insisted the laws could not be altered and rejected demands by the opposition for dialogue.

The law makes it easier for firms to sack workers and replace strikers. It keeps a ban on freedom of union association by delaying recognition of the confederation until 2000.

Political analysts said the law was a major gaffe by president Kim and the climbdown would erode his authority in his last year in office and damage the ruling party ahead of presidential elections in December.

"This probably is the biggest blunder of Kim's presidency," said political science professor Shin Jung-hyun. "The blunder will increase pressure to turn him into a lame duck."