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South Korean Police Break Up Rallies Supporting Striking Railway Workers - 2003-06-28

South Korean police stormed into university campuses and other locations on Saturday to break up rallies in support of striking railway workers. The action is President Roh's Moo-hyun's first clash with organized labor, whose support was pivotal to his recent election.

President Roh has talked tough since taking office in February, but this is the first time his government has acted forcibly against illegal strikes.

On Saturday, tens of thousands of riot police stormed Yonsei University in Seoul and other locations across the country to break up rallies and sit-ins in support of the railway workers' strike. More than 1,000 strikers were reportedly arrested.

Angered by Mr. Roh's move, two umbrella union groups, the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions and the Federation of Korean Trade Unions, called for another series of strikes next week.

The labor crackdown by the left-of-center South Korean leader, himself a former labor lawyer, coincides with worsening news for Asia's fourth-largest economy. Figures released Friday show South Korean industrial output contracting in May for the second straight month due to a nationwide truck drivers' strike. South Korea's central bank has revised its growth forecast down to 4.1 percent, from 5.7 percent.

Labor unrest and its economic fallout come against the backdrop of impending increases in military expenditures for Seoul. U.S. forces stationed in the country will soon begin redeploying away from the border with communist North Korea, and the South Koreans will be expected to take over many of the military jobs American troops are currently doing.

Details of that agreement came after talks in Washington Friday between U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and South Korean Defense Minister Cho Young-kil. The two said they had agreed to "the transfer of selected missions" from American to South Korean troops.

The redeployment is part of a strategy for dealing with the threat posed by North Korea's recently revealed nuclear weapons program. Washington is also pressing the United Nations Security Council to demand that North Korea dismantle its nuclear program.

North Korea has sent a letter to the Security Council warning it to remain neutral on the issue. Pyongyang has previously said any punitive action by the Security Council action amount to a declaration of war.