Seoul Apologizes, but Won't Rewrite Labor Law

SEOUL, South Korea -- South Korea's ruling party apologized Thursday for railroading a labor bill through Parliament, but stopped short of promising to rewrite it -- a key demand of striking workers.

The apology marked a step back from President Kim Young-sam's hardline stand and followed violent clashes between police and some 40,000 workers and students in Seoul on Wednesday.

"It is very regrettable that the revision of the law was not smooth ... for which I am very sorry," Lee Hong-koo, chairman of the ruling New Korea Party, told a news conference.

But Lee ruled out the possibility of rewriting the law "for now." He said only that the law could be changed later if problems arise in implementing it.

Lee's concession failed to placate union leaders.

"It is not even worth consideration at all. We are prepared for a prolonged struggle and we are confident that public opinion is on our side," said Kwon Young-gil, head of an illegal labor confederation spearheading the strikes.

"As the head of state, President Kim must think about saving the economy, not his face."

His group said 269,000 workers were on strike, but the Labor Ministry said the figure was only 81,500.

At a downtown park, 5,000 workers rallied to push their demands. Joining the protest for the first time were journalists from 11 national newspapers. A brief pushing match resulted when demonstrators tried to shove through a police barricade to reach the Roman Catholic Myongdong Cathedral, where the union leaders have set up headquarters.

Police fired several volleys of tear gas to disperse the demonstrators, but the confrontation was far milder than on Wednesday, when 150 unionists and supporters were arrested.

In the southern industrial city of Ulsan, 15,000 strikers rallied but later dispersed peacefully.

The new law makes it easier for employers to lay off workers, adjust work hours and hire substitutes for strikers, while delaying for up to five years key labor benefits, including the right to form trade unions. It was pushed through Parliament on Dec. 26 in a seven-minute, secret, pre-dawn session attended only by ruling party members. They took the action after opposition lawmakers had physically restrained the majority party from meeting for nearly a week, once barring the speaker in his office.

Within hours, workers were walking off their jobs in some of the nation's key export industries, and the strikes later snowballed into the largest labor protest in South Korea's history. The government estimates the strikes, now in their 22nd day, have cost an already ailing economy about $2.9 billion in lost production and export earnings.

But despite the losses and massive, almost daily demonstrations by workers in Seoul and other major cities, the strikes have not been as widespread and devastating as union leaders predicted. Many unions and individual union members have ignored the strike calls, while others have limited their protests to work slowdowns or partial walkouts.