Striking workers reject government offer for talks

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Hurling eggs at a government building and shouting slogans outside a cathedral during Mass, thousands of striking workers persisted in protests Sunday against a new labor law.
The 18-day-old protests, the country’s largest ever, started after the government pushed through the law during a short, secret, pre-dawn parliamentary session attended only by governing party legislators.
The law makes it easier for companies to fire employees and threatens South Korea’s time-honored tradition of workers holding jobs for life. But what began as a labor protest has become increasingly political, with even workers unaffected by the law demanding the ouster of President Kim Young-sam’s government.
The government offered to hold talks with outlawed labor groups and indicated Sunday it may be willing to revise the law. Labor leaders rejected the offer and warned that unless Kim repeals the law by Tuesday, even more workers — including some from the public sector — would join the strike.
Already, the strike has forced South Korea’s largest car maker, Hyundai Motor Co., to shut its plant, saying it cannot afford to stay open after losing $465 million in production. Hyundai workers said they will ignore the company’s shutdown and gather at the plant Monday.
Journalists, shipyard workers, nurses, credit card company employees, and assembly line workers are already striking. The wider strike Tuesday would include subways, phone companies and the national mint.
The government-sanctioned Federation of Korean Trade Unions has called for a strike by taxi drivers and bank, hotel and city rail workers beginning Tuesday afternoon.
No serious violence was reported in protests in Seoul and two other cities Sunday, one day after police fired tear gas to break up a rally of 20,000 people in the center of the capital.
At Seoul’s Myungdong Cathedral, while 1,000 workers protested outside, Cardinal Stephen Kim Soo-hwan chided the government in his sermon for enacting the law without full parliamentary debate. Seven union leaders — wanted by police for organizing the illegal strikes — have been holed up in the cathedral for days.
In the southern city of Ulsan, the seat of many Hyundai plants, 15,000 workers marched. Protesters threw hundreds of eggs at the local chapter of Kim’s party, covering the front of two-story building.
Kim, a former dissident leader and South Korea’s first civilian leader in 32 years, has carried out wide-ranging reforms since taking office in early 1993.
Critics say he still has much to do, and many people are upset by the secret, one-sided vote that enacted the law. Opposition parties demanded an immediate meeting with Kim, saying the protests are turning into a “crisis that is getting out of hand.”
Two weeks ago, the government had been confident the strikes would subside for lack of public support. But religious groups, opposition parties and intellectuals have thrown their weight behind the striking workers and cautioned against a government crackdown.
If prolonged, the protests would seriously hurt South Korea’s ailing economy. The country’s balance of payments deficit ballooned to $23 billion in 1996, more than three times the original target of $7 billion. Its foreign debt also swelled to $100 billion at the end of 1996, about a quarter of its gross national product.