South Koreans Strike to Protest Labor Law

SEOUL -- Striking workers shut South Korean carmakers and shipyards Thursday, crippling key export industries, and hospital and subway staff threatened to join an all-out stoppage in fury at a new labor law.

Half a million workers were called out on an indefinite strike by a militant union body in response to the railroading through parliament of a law that challenges decades of job security by allowing worker layoffs.

Some 150,000 workers responded immediately, halting production lines at Hyundai, Kia and Ssangyong group car plants and shutting two Hyundai shipyards and two others, according to the outlawed Korea Confederation of Trade Unions.

The more moderate Federation of Korean Trade Unions instructed its 1.2 million members to join them Friday.

The government apologized to the public for ramming through the bill, together with another controversial law strengthening the domestic spy agency, at a dawn session of parliament attended only by ruling New Korean Party deputies.

"I feel truly sorry for failing to settle the issues through dialogue and compromise with the opposition," New Korea Party chairman Lee Hong-koo said.

Opposition parties have physically blocked previous attempts to vote on the bills. Later, the prime minister's office warned of unspecified "stern countermeasures" against illegal strikes as the prospect of industrial and transport chaos loomed.

Unionists at 14 hospitals, including Seoul National University Hospital, the country's leading medical center, voted to strike starting Friday. More than 9,000 Seoul subway workers decided on a walkout Saturday, a half day for most Korean workers.

"We are hoisting the flag of a general strike to punish outrages of the Kim Young-sam government," the moderate union federation said in a statement.

The opposition National Congress for New Politics said it would launch a constitutional challenge to the laws. Opposition deputies occupied parliament in a silent sit-down protest and vowed to stay until midnight Saturday.

The Federation of Korean Trade Unions said its initial stoppage would begin at 1 p.m. Friday and last until noon Saturday.

"Workers have nothing to lose any more," said Namuh Rhee, the head of research at Dongbang Peregrine Securities. "I see a series of massive strikes in the first quarter of 1997."

Stocks tumbled on fears of damage to an already shaky economy, but analysts said the labor law, which allows worker layoffs and flexible work hours, brightened the long-term picture by enabling struggling companies to cut costs.

"The new labor act will have a very positive impact on the economy," said Jardine Fleming Securities analyst Tae Chung.

"Short-term, this will come at the expense of strikes, labor unrest and further deterioration of the economy. But this should be off-set by the long-term recovery."