South Korea Strikers Battle Police

SEOUL -- Workers wielding iron bars and hurling rocks battled South Korean riot police Wednesday, but authorities warned strikes were being fanned by North Korea in a sign that a harsh crackdown on labor strife was imminent.

On the second day of what was billed as the biggest strike in South Korea's history, state prosecutors issued an ultimatum to union leaders to abandon stoppages or face arrest.

They stepped up pressure on seven leaders of the outlawed Korean Confederation of Trade Unions camped out in Seoul's Myongdong Cathedral by throwing a security cordon of riot police around the red brick building.

Cabinet ministers added to a sense of crisis by saying strikes could undermine the economy.

Police fired volleys of tear gas to prevent some 15,000 workers and students from marching on Myongdong in some of the fiercest street clashes since a controversial labor law was rammed through parliament three weeks ago.

However, the final day of a planned general strike fizzled. Buses and subways ran smoothly and ports operated normally.

In the southeast city of Ulsan, Hyundai workers smashed picket lines to keep South Korea's largest dockyard open. They ran a gauntlet of unionists at the iron dockyard gates who lashed out at the strike-breakers with fists and threw buckets of yellow paint over their blue overalls.

It was the most dramatic indication that the hearts of rank-and-file union members are not in the fight against the new law that allows companies to fire workers and replace strikers.

State prosecutors invoked a North Korean threat, a move frequently used by past governments to justify harsh measures against political opponents.

"North Korea is agitating workers to topple the government," prosecutor Choi Byung-kook told a news conference. "If the unrest drags on it will give North Korea an opportunity for revolutionary struggle."

The two Koreas have been enemies since their 1950 to 1953 war ended in an armed truce.

The officially approved Federation of Korean Trade Unions said 400,000 of its 1.2 million members had walked out. The outlawed confederation, which says it has the support of 500,000 workers, said 350,000 of its members were striking.

The Labor Ministry said 111,000 workers had joined stoppages. A meeting of government ministers presided over by Prime Minister Lee Soo-sung determined that the arrest of unionists "cannot be delayed even with some negative effects and repercussions," a government statement said.

Political analysts said they thought a violent end to the strikes was inevitable since labor unrest had turned into an election-year battle against President Kim Young-sam.

"With unions asking concessions that the government cannot meet, it appears impossible for the government to end the strike through dialogue," said Kim Young-jin, a labor expert at Korea University.

Said one Asian diplomat: "The government will have to give up power if it meets union demands."