Americans are told to avoid Korean protests
November 17, 2004
SEOUL — Labor unrest in South Korea heightened this week in Seoul, as thousands of public workers launched a general strike Monday and U.S. officials continued their warnings for U.S. soldiers and civilians to avoid demonstrations.
Thousands of civil servants walked off their jobs Monday morning, seeking the right to strike and take other collective labor actions. The government says the Korean Government Employees’ Union lacks the right to strike and says it will fire anyone who does so.
For several days, U.S. Forces Korea has run “crawler” messages on broadcasts of American Forces Network stations, listing dates and times of rallies to be avoided. The U.S. Embassy issued a warning last week saying the demonstrations could turn violent and should be avoided.
Over the weekend, up to 40,000 workers jammed the streets near Seoul’s Kwanghwamun intersection, diverting traffic and drawing hundreds of extra riot police to the area.
Korean National Police officials said they’ve deployed more than 16,000 riot police to 200 public areas where striking workers might rally.
Other than traffic jams and amplified chants and songs of the protests, U.S. soldiers and civilians likely will feel no effects. Workers responsible for hospitals, sewage, electrical services and other public utilities have said they will not join the strike.
Emergency service providers such as police officers and firefighters should not be affected because police and firefighters are not allowed to join unions.
But the labor strife could worsen. The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions — the umbrella group for labor groups throughout South Korea — said it would launch a general strike Nov. 23.
Government officials already have promised harsh treatment for any public employees who join this week’s work action.
Home Affairs Minister Huh Sung-kwan went on live television Monday, promising that “all government employees opting to participate in the strike will be punished and lose their jobs permanently.”
Huh also said anyone terminated for taking part in the strike would lose any rights to be rehired later.
“We will fight to secure the basic labor rights by successfully carrying out the general strike at any costs,” a union statement read, according to Korean media.
As usually happens with demonstrations in South Korea, protesters at Sunday’s rally also demanded the government stop free-trade negotiations with Japan, bring home South Korean troops from Iraq and repeal the National Security Law.
Separately on Saturday, thousands of farmers held a violent rally in downtown Seoul, protesting the government’s agriculture policies.