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South Korea's Power Monopoly Head Offers to Resign - 2002-03-13

The head of South Korea's power monopoly has offered to resign to take responsibility for a costly and unprecedented strike. The labor union says the official's resignation might help restart stalled talks.

Choi Soo-byung, head of the state-run Korea Electric Power Corporation, or "KEPCO," offered to resign Wednesday, while urging union members to get back to work. Mr. Choi said continuation of the strike might disrupt the country's power supply.

More than 5,000 KEPCO workers walked off the job February 25 to protest government plans to privatize much of the company. Union workers say privatization will mean job cuts and higher prices for electricity.

The South Korean government says it will not back down from its plans to privatize much of the power industry or to take legal action against organizers of the strike. The government ruled the walkout illegal earlier this week and fired 49 workers involved in the job action. By law, public sector workers can not strike and management can dismiss anyone who misses five days of work.

Economic analyst Yookung Park in Seoul says the government also hopes to privatize the gas, rail and some other industries, so precedents set in the struggle over the electric utility could ripple through the entire economy. She predicts that the electric power industry will be privatized sooner or later. "I think most likely it is going to be delayed, by another 12 to 18 months," Ms. Park said.

So far, non-union workers, who account for about a third of the staff, have managed to keep the electricity flowing. But Ms. Parks says the strike means that the utility can not use some of its cheapest and most efficient means of producing electricity. News reports say the extra fuel costs are running into millions of dollars.

About 40 percent of South Korea's electric power is generated by nuclear power plants, which will remain in government hands for security reasons.