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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Suicide Try Marks 16th Strike Day

SEOUL -- A worker set himself ablaze Friday to protest a new South Korean labor law as the first signs appeared that the government may try to end massive protest strikes by negotiation rather than force.


Colleagues quoted the Hyundai Motor Co. worker, 34-year-old Chung Jae-Sung, as shouting "Abolish the bad law!" before dousing himself with what appeared to be paint thinner and setting himself alight. He was admitted to a clinic in critical condition with burns over 90 percent of his body, a union spokesman said by phone from the southern port city of Ulsan.


The self-immolation attempt outside the Hyundai Motor Co. plant apparently forced Hyundai into declaring a lockout at the plant, though the company in a statement attributed the lockout to the 16-day-long strikes against the law.


In Seoul, where tensions rose Friday because of warrants issued for the arrests of seven key union leaders, the first sign emerged that the government might consider dialogue with the unions.


Until Friday, the government and management had spurned talks and threatened arrests, lockouts and police action, charging the unions with "illegal strikes" in their opposition to the new law, which workers charge heavily favors management.


But after an impassioned plea by the Roman Catholic Church for all sides to eschew force and open talks, Lee Hong-Koo, chairman of the ruling New Korea Party, NKP, made the first visit by a senior official to a union headquarters.


Lee first called at the headquarters of the Federation of Korean Trade Unions, FKTU, where he assured their leaders that there would be "no sudden arrests," Lee's aide and union officials said. The former prime minister then telephoned the leaders of the outlawed Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, KCTU, who are facing arrest, to ask to see them on Saturday, KCTU officers said.


The two umbrella unions, who claim a joint following of 1.7 million workers, have threatened to close down the country with the biggest strikes South Korea has ever seen on Jan. 14-15 unless the law is repealed.


Kwon Young-Kil, leader of the KCTU, heads the arrest list. He is holed up with the six others named in the arrest warrants at Seoul's Myongdong Cathedral.


The new law, which allows employers a freer hand in cutting labor forces, was rammed through parliament in a sneak predawn session on Dec. 26 in the absence of the opposition. It has been approved by President Kim Young-Sam and becomes law on March 1.


The heat on the government was turned up in full force Friday when thousands of motorists using what they called "Belgrade tactics" blared their horns while driving past the central Seoul government complex in a deafening prearranged protest. But unlike Belgrade they kept their feet on the gas pedals.


In addition, three separate opinion polls showed an overwhelming majority of Koreans opposed the law, hundreds of university professors issued a manifesto calling for its nullification, and Roman Catholic priests, Protestant pastors and Buddhists issued statements and called for prayers.


At an unscheduled news conference at Myongdong Cathedral, the Roman Catholic hierarchy on Friday stepped firmly into the fray, calling on all sides to reject the use of force.


"We hope the government will not reject dialogue, set the stage for reconciliation and make an offer to redress the labor law," Bishop Chang Duk-Pil said. He urged management to stop being so tough and unions to use strikes only as a last resort.


But the bishop warned the government against sending police into the cathedral to arrest the seven.