SEOUL, South Korea -- Riot police clashed with protesters yesterday on the streets of Seoul as a nationwide general strike spread to new areas and set the stage for a major confrontation between workers and the government.
Columns of riot police stood guard in key parts of the capital while crowds of strikers cheered to speakers' denunciations of President Kim Young Sam.
The police used rifles and armored vehicles to propel tear gas over strikers; but despite several brief skirmishes, no one was seriously injured.
The 3-day-old strike, set off by labor laws passed last week, is supported by as many as several hundred thousand workers at hundreds of locations around the country.
It has shut down most of South Korea's auto industry, many big factories and shipbuilding operations, and some hospital wards. Yesterday it also disrupted service on the Seoul subway system.
Much of Seoul seemed to be functioning fairly normally yesterday. But workers are vowing to stay on the streets until the government backs down, while the authorities are calling the strike illegal and hinting at a crackdown.
President Kim has ended some protests in the past by crushing them with riot police, but this strike, apparently the biggest in South Korean history, would be difficult to resolve with force. And a crackdown could prompt sympathy strikes.
On the streets, the strikers adamantly oppose backing down.
"I'm worried about the possibility of a violent crackdown or of being fired," Chong Mi Sook, 28, a nurse striking at Inha University Hospital in Songnam, near Seoul. "But I will still strike every day until this is resolved."
Chong's hospital, like 13 others around the country, has curtailed services because of the strike. Emergency rooms and maternity wards are still open, but treatment of many outpatients has been suspended indefinitely. Workers at several hospitals are scheduled to go on strike soon.
The strike began Thursday after the governing party held a secret seven-minute session of the National Assembly to pass new labor laws. The laws make it easier for companies to lay off workers, and they delay by three years the authorization of labor unions, which are now in existence but technically banned.
Another law passed in the same session gave sweeping new powers to the Agency for National Security Planning, a domestic spy agency that once was known as the Korean Central Intelligence Agency and was used then as an instrument of political repression.
Opposition politicians have denounced the Assembly session as virtual coup d'etat and a step toward a return to dictatorship.
The government called the secret session because opposition lawmakers, knowing that they would be outvoted on the labor legislation, had physically blocked areas in the National Assembly, keeping it from conducting any business.
So before dawn Thursday, the governing New Korea Party convened its own lawmakers at four hotels and took them by chartered bus to the National Assembly, where they passed the bills with no opposition lawmakers present.
Because opposition members had also camped around the house of the speaker of the National Assembly to prevent him from convening a session, the New Korea Party used a deputy speaker to preside over the session.
The announcement of what had happened in the National Assembly set off a wave of stunned fury, both at the content of the new laws and at the way they had been passed. The Korean Federation of Democratic Unions, an unauthorized alliance that claims nearly 500,000 members, promptly called a strike.
More surprising, the Korean Federation of Trade Unions, a government-controlled organization that has 1.2 million members, also voiced outrage and backed the strike.
"This strike will go on indefinitely," Park Moon Jin, a leader of the Democratic Federation, said yesterday, pausing on a Seoul street corner after making a speech to workers.
She had been roundly applauded when she shouted into a bullhorn, "We should smash down the Kim Young Sam regime at once."
Not all the members of the union alliances are on strike, and there are huge variations in estimates of the number of workers taking part.
Chung Ji Won, a Labor Ministry official, said yesterday that about 120,000 were striking and that the number was declining.
"We think that the number will decrease further," Chung added.
But officials of the two labor alliances provided figures suggesting that a total of 372,000 workers were on strike yesterday, and that the number was growing.
"The number of strikers will increase as workers at securities firms and other finance-related companies will join in a couple of days," said Kim You Sun, director of the Democratic Federation's policy bureau.
Independent news organizations in South Korea gave estimates similar to those of the labor unions and far higher than those of the government.
Pub Date: 12/29/96