South Korean Party Chief Tries to See Strike Leaders

SEOUL, South Korea -- The chairman of South Korea's ruling party made a dramatic visit Monday to a Seoul cathedral where union leaders are sheltering from arrest as they plot the biggest strike in the nation's history.


But plans for all-out work stoppages intended to begin Tuesday appeared to be wavering, with hardened union activists confessing workers were losing their appetite for confrontation.


Unions had threatened the biggest strike in South Korea's history on Tuesday and Wednesday over a new labor law giving employers the right to lay off workers and replace strikers.


The Defense Ministry said military personnel were ready to intervene to keep essential services running.


Continuing his charm offensive that has stolen the spotlight from militant union leaders sheltering from arrest at Myongdong Cathedral, ruling New Korea Party leader Lee Hong-koo pulled up in his official limousine and sought a meeting with the activists.


Lee and his entourage were shoved aside by workers screaming "Get Out, Get Out," and he met instead with the country's Roman Catholic Cardinal.


Lee had earlier challenged leaders of the outlawed Korean Confederation of Trade Unions to a televised debate over the new bill.


Confederation heads said they would only meet Lee if the government scrapped the bill and dropped arrest warrants against them.


Official figures showed production losses from strikes after the labor bill was rammed through parliament on Dec. 26 would cost the country 1.96 trillion won ($2.3 billion) by the end of Monday.


Tuesday's strikes are being spearheaded by the officially recognized Federation of Korean Trade Unions. It has called for a two-day walkout by it 1.2 million members.


However, by late Monday, there were clear signs that stoppages may have only a token impact.


Bank unions, for instance, said as many as half of all tellers would show up as usual. Subway unions said that drivers would confine their protests to wearing street clothes instead of uniforms.


"We are going to continue service as normal, but wearing civilian clothes," said Yoo Jae-hyoun, a union official with the Seoul Metro Rapid Transit.


Stock investors were unruffled by the threatened strikes, and the market finished flat with some blue-chips even posting slight gains.


Union leaders in Ulsan, home of the giant Hyundai Group and traditional hotbed of worker militancy, admitted that sentiment was turning against industrial action. In particular, they said workers at Hyundai Heavy Industries, the group's shipbuilding arm, were growing weary of conflict. "People are getting older, and cooperation is sagging," said one union official.


The 500,000-strong confederation has urged its members to join all-out stoppages on Wednesday. It was not clear whether that call would meet with a similar response.


Some Korean commentators have suggested the normally docile federation issued its strike call only to maintain credibility among members who might otherwise be tempted to join the more militant outlawed umbrella union group.


Lee's headline-grabbing visit to Myongdong Cathedral appeared designed to soften the government's image. Threats to arrest union leaders have recalled the harsh methods of past authoritarian regimes.


"Lee Hong-koo's visit is a failed publicity stunt to put us in the negative light as an uncompromising radical group," said one confederation official.


Meanwhile, Prime Minister Lee Soo-sung warned confederation leaders they could not evade the law forever, according to Yonhap news agency.