Kim Agrees To Talks, Workers Halt Strike

SEOUL, South Korea -- In a dramatic climbdown, South Korean President Kim Young-sam on Monday agreed to meet opposition leaders to resolve a crisis over a new labor law that ignited more than three weeks of strikes.

Adding to signs that authorities were seeking a peaceful end to violent confrontation with labor unions, prosecutors said they would hold off arresting seven strike leaders sheltering in Seoul's Myongdong Cathedral.

Kim has rejected repeated demands by opposition parties to discuss the new bill, which makes it easier to sack workers and maintains a ban on free trade union association until 2000.

His about-face followed a decision by the militant Korean Confederation of Trade Unions to call off an indefinite strike, a move that put South Korean factories back to work Monday with no interruptions for the first time since the law was rammed through parliament Dec. 26.

Opposition parties, who have thrown their weight behind the unions, welcomed Kim's offer for talks over lunch Tuesday at the presidential Blue House.

The breakthrough came after Kim met the heads of South Korea's main faiths -- Buddhist, Roman Catholic and Protestant -- who all pleaded with him to exercise restraint, offering the president a face-saving way to abandon his hard line.

The stock market jumped by 3.5 percent, but economists cautioned that, despite an end to labor strife, the country still faced wrenching economic problems.

There was speculation that Kim, under pressure from right-wingers in his New Korea Party to crush militant unions in the final year of his presidency, would seek to meet unionists half-way.

Political analysts said Kim might agree to supplement the labor law with more guarantees of job security and advance the timetable for recognizing the outlawed confederation, whose leaders are hiding in the cathedral.

Newspaper reports said the ruling party may be prepared to re-open debate on the law in the National Assembly.

While many South Koreans agree the country's rigid labor practices need overhauling, there is anger at the way the law was adopted in a half-empty chamber of ruling party deputies during a six-minute clandestine dawn session.

The tactics of the New Korea Party gave further fuel to critics who say Kim's presidency is growing increasingly harsh and authoritarian.

Kim has been adamant he would neither scrap the law nor revise it, arguing South Korea needed the bill to recover its international competitive edge.

"Any resolution of the strikes isn't going to resolve Korea's economic problems," said Jonathon Dutton, an analyst at SBC Warburg in Seoul.

He noted that slowing growth and a ballooning balance of payments deficit were largely the result of falling prices for major export items, especially semiconductors.

"One way in the long run to improve labor competitiveness is to make the work force more flexible and increase the downward pressure on wages. So long term the law is positive, and encouragingly the Koreans have decided to tackle the problem," Dutton said.