SEOUL — To understand why President Kim Young Sam dramatically reversed himself and met today with his opponents for a possible breakthrough in South Korea's monthlong labor strife, consider the views of Jhee Byung Wook. He manages a hotel unhappily located across from the cathedral where workers and riot police have staged nightly confrontations. The restaurant has lost three-fourths of its business.
With his black suit and neatly parted hair, conservative Jhee had long frowned on South Korea's infamous student demonstrators. Instead, he passionately supported Kim in 1992 and has defended him ever since.
Until last month. Kim's ruling New Korea Party then rammed two controversial revisions to the labor and national security laws through the National Assembly in a predawn session. Jhee's sentiments have shifted. "When the student demonstrators were here throwing rocks, I didn't sympathize with them, but this is different," he said. "These are workers responsible for the lives of their families."
In a battle for the hearts and minds of middle-class citizens like Jhee, South Korea's workers have shown a power many believed they had lost. Calls for a general strike last week fell short of projections, attracting 600,000 participants--by union count, and one-sixth that by government count--among the nation's 1.6 million union members.
But by brewing a volatile mix of public anxieties over job security and fears of a democratic backslide, workers have extracted significant compromises from the ruling party and inspired new sympathizers for South Korea's declining labor movement.
President Kim himself, for example, changed his mind and met with opposition leaders today hoping to end the political and economic tumult that has dogged his government since the Dec. 26 passage of the controversial labor law.
Resolution in Doubt
It was unclear, though, whether Kim's decision to reverse himself and meet with his opponents--who have sent their forces back to work after costly job actions--will resolve the crisis, which has preoccupied South Korea's political leadership.
Ruling party chairman Lee Hong Koo, for example, offered last week to reopen the National Assembly to debate the revisions and to meet with opposition leaders. The party has broken ranks, with five of its nine presidential hopefuls calling for a review of the revisions.
Both the party and the government, which failed to anticipate the public uproar the revisions would cause, have scrambled to put together a $1.4-billion worker compensation package. The three-year package, set to be announced this week, includes low-interest loans, tax breaks on worker savings, subsidies to start new businesses and financial incentives to hire and retrain dismissed workers.
"Our strikes of the past few years were focused on wage increases, so it was easy for the government to attack us as a special-interest group engaged in our own selfish struggle," said Kim Woo Sun of the militant and technically outlawed Korean Confederation of Trade Unions. "But with this general strike, we hope to revitalize the Korean labor movement."
Once world-renowned for its passion and fury, with nightly newscasts showing workers battling police and even setting themselves afire as martyrs for freedom, the labor movement had lost its momentum in recent years. Union membership nearly doubled after a volcanic explosion of public protests toppled the military government of Chun Doo Hwan in 1987 but has steadily declined from a high of 1.9 million in 1989 to the 1.6 million today.
And growing prosperity has boosted the quality of workers' lives while dramatically diminishing the number of labor complaints. While the number of labor disputes--overwhelmingly involving wage increases--skyrocketed to 3,749 in 1987 from 276 the previous year, they dropped to just 322 in 1990, according to government figures.
As firms increased wages, average household income quadrupled from 1987 to 1995, and the once-impoverished South Koreans were suddenly buying cars, taking overseas vacations and eating out more. The number of cars, for instance, exploded to 10 million in 1996 compared with just 717,800 in 1987.
Over time, labor activism became less important than securing comfortable lives for themselves and their families, workers here say.
Im Chang Jin, for instance, hurled stones as a student activist in the late 1980s but settled down to a bank job after the protests brought democracy. His pay has grown 30% over the last five years, enabling the onetime country boy who survived on cheap noodles to buy a car and take vacations in Japan and Europe.
"After we struggled against the military dictatorship to change to a civilian democracy, we began exerting ourselves to better our living conditions and did so with diligence," Im said.