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South Korean Rail Strike Ends

A two-day strike by South Korean state railway workers ended Wednesday. State employees in the country's electricity sector remain on strike, protesting government privatization plans and demanding a shorter work day.

Workers from South Korea's state-run railroad are back at work following a two-day strike that paralyzed the nation's rail system. Union leaders and management struck a compromise early Wednesday following marathon overnight talks. Management promised to try to cut working hours. It also agreed to rehire some strike leaders.

But there was no compromise on a government plan to sell the rail system and other inefficient public utilities. Workers fear that privatization will result in mass firings for state employees.

However, the government says it will keep in mind the public nature of the railroad as it proceeds with its plans.

"I think that is political speak for 'we will not rush full steam ahead and we will not leave a lot of laid-off workers in our wake'," said Henry Morris, director of Industrial Research and Consulting in Seoul.

The strike, in which tens of thousands of workers took part, is being viewed as a challenge to President Kim Dae-jung in a year when both local and presidential elections will be held.

Turning inefficient state utilities into private companies is a key plank of the president's economic reform program. It is also part of Seoul's agreement with the International Monetary Fund, which provided the country with a $58 billion bailout after the 1997 Asian financial crisis.

Mr. Morris, the consultant, says that the strike is bound to affect the presidential election. "What can now happen is that future privatization does become a political football, so that those currently standing for the presidential primaries can all claim they will be the best person to handle the future privatization of Korea's public industries," he said.

The rail strike created havoc for train travelers and cargo shipments. Thousands of workers at Hyundai and Kia, South Korea's two largest car makers, also put down their tools for a half-day Tuesday as a show of support. They, too, want a shorter work week. South Korean workers typically spend five-and-a-half to six days a week on the job, with a 48-hour work week considered average.