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South Korean Power Workers Strike Continues - 2002-03-21


South Korean state power workers, on strike to protest the government's plans to privatize the electricity sector, say they will step up their campaign despite a management threat they will be fired.

More than 4,000 unionized workers in South Korea's state-run power industry said they will continue their work stoppage, now in its 24th day, and will even widen their protest over the coming weekend. Union leaders, holed up at Seoul's Myongdong cathedral, have started a hunger strike.

The management of five state-owned power generation companies has taken an equally hard-nosed attitude and given the workers until Monday to go to work or be fired. Authorities declared the strike illegal because the workers are government employees.

This is the fourth back-to-work deadline set for the workers in as many weeks. But the workers say they will press on until the government drops its plans to sell-off the power monopoly. The unions oppose privatization because they fear it would lead to downsizing and loss of jobs.

At a cabinet meeting Tuesday, President Kim Dae-jung said he would not withdraw the privatization plans, which have already won parliament's approval.

Hong Nam-ki, research director for Morgan Stanley in Seoul, says the plan is an important measure of the government's commitment to economic reform. "If international investors begin to feel that, because of this strike, that in any way South Korea is retreating from the road to restructuring, then I think that will come at a cost. And if we see a slowdown in confidence that South Korea is continuing to change, then that will come at a cost. If we see a reversal, it will be material and noteworthy for South Korea," Mr. Hong said.

So far, the strike has had a very limited effect on power supply, and officials have dismissed the possibility of shortages in the near future. The government has hired temporary staff and nearly all of the country's 154 electricity generators can run automatically.

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