Hiccups in South Korea's prosperity Sudden strikes: Responses to President Kim's high-handed legislation.

December 30, 1996

THE PASSAGE to democracy, like the passage to developed prosperity, can be rocky. The sudden rash of strikes in South Korea's lucrative export industries attests to that.

These were political strikes against government legislation, not collective bargaining. But the law being protested was a change in labor relations rules, giving employers greater latitude in breaking strikes and firing workers.

President Kim Young Sam's allies rammed the law through the National Assembly at an unannounced early morning meeting, before opposition deputies could muster. The strikes that ranged Thursday and Friday from nurses in hospitals to auto- and ship-builders, protested that tactic. But the government acted that way because opposition deputies had physically blocked earlier sessions, which is not democratic behavior, either.

South Korea has become an economic powerhouse in part because its skilled and motivated work force is paid less than Japan's. But now its prosperity hurts the competitiveness of South Korea's fabled export boom, especially in cars and ships. Hence the employer lobbying for this curtailment of labor power. South Korea is approaching the economic maturity that overtook Japan's earlier economic miracle.

Government spokesmen hinted at authoritarian countermeasures. But in the long run, industries remain competitive through labor-management teamwork. What disturbed political opponents most was that the same General Assembly secret session rammed through a measure restoring to the Korean CIA broad domestic powers only recently taken from it.

South Korea, in edgy relations with the poor and militarized North Korea, faces a national election at the end of 1997. The fear is that the restored intelligence agency, justified by North Korea's aggression, would be used against domestic political opposition.

At best, all this adds up to growing pains for South Korea's democracy and prosperity. Prolonged unrest could only hurt the country and help its enemies. Military stability in the Korean peninsula rests on stable economic growth in South Korea. All sides there have an interest in seeing that restored.

Pub Date: 12/30/96

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