Amid protest, Park to stick to ‘principles’
“If we moderately get by and compromise [over the railroad workers’ strike] just because it causes trouble, the future of our economy and society won’t be promising,” said Park as she presided over a weekly meeting with her senior secretaries at the Blue House. “I think all the problems should be solved with the citizens at the center, and principles should be abided by even in more difficult times.”
Park often referred to “principles” in her presidential campaign, which has become one of her political catchphrases during her time as head of the Saenuri Party. A week earlier, the president dubbed the railroad workers’ strike “an affair with no ground whatsoever,” meaning she has made no attitude change over the issue.
“Even though the government has repeatedly announced that it has no plans to privatize the railroads, the workers are waging a strike demanding not to do so. That means they do not trust the government and are dealing a blow to the national economy,” she told her senior secretaries on Dec. 16.
The government on Sunday dispatched more than 5,000 police officers to the headquarters of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) in central Seoul to arrest key members of the Korail union - six days after a court granted arrest warrants for 25 Korail union leaders. But the sweep through the 18-story building, owned by the liberal Kyunghyang Shinmun daily newspaper, ended up in vain as the accused had already left the premises. Police officers smashed their way through the front door, breaking windows and spraying tear gas.
The 7,600-member Korail union began its walkout on Dec. 9 to protest the government’s attempt to set up a subsidiary to run a new high-speed train line from Suseo-dong, southeast Seoul, to Busan. The union claimed the move was a shifty way of privatizing national rail services, even though Park claims the subsidiary is necessary for normalizing Korail, which is in 17 trillion won ($16 billion) worth of debt.
“The Korail event is to become Park Geun-hye administration’s first touchstone for reform,” said a high-ranking official at the Blue House. “If she steps back, how could she properly push ahead with addressing those problems she promised to, such as overhaul of public companies and agencies?”
Bracing for their longest-ever labor strike, Korail’s top management yesterday announced a plan to hire 500 new workers - 300 engineers and 200 cabin crew - starting next month. Korail CEO Choi Yeon-hye urged the company’s union members to come back to work, as the ongoing strike has continued to weigh on substitute workers, causing delays and safety problems in the operation of its trains.
“It is inevitable to add substitute workers to the field, as administrative employees who supported field workers in emergencies have to return to their own work,” Choi said at a press conference at the headquarters of Korail in central Seoul. “We will try to raise the operating rate as much as possible by employing additional work forces, while also considering how many labor union members will come back to work.”
The new workers will be interns who completed training courses at the company and those who retired from Korail one or two years ago. They will be hired as temporary workers for a certain length of time, the company said.
The CEO added that she also has a plan to hire third-party companies to perform maintenance work on train cars during the extended strike.
According to the company, as of yesterday, 73 percent of KTX, 56 percent of Saemaeul and 61 percent of the Mugunghwa lines were in service, recording their lowest operation rates.
In Seoul, the operation rate of the subway fell to 85.7 percent, causing inconvenience for commuters. Only 30 percent of cargo trains worked yesterday, paralyzing logistical functions of major businesses.
According to the company plan, 300 new engineers will be assigned to cargo trains. As of 6 p.m. yesterday, those workers who returned to work totaled 1,121.
Choi said the total operating rate would remain at 70 percent this week, but it will drop further to 60 percent by Monday if the strike continues.
“The labor union is enforcing an illegal strike and turning a deaf ear to management’s explanation that Suseo KTX will be operated by a subsidiary of Korail,” Choi emphasized.
Apparently seeking to win over disgruntled citizens and lift the president’s image - which has so far been characterized by her “reluctance to communicate”- the Blue House yesterday announced that Park would hold a New Year press conference early in 2014, which is set to become her first press conference ever since she took office in February. The exact date is not yet confirmed.
Park’s predecessor, Lee Myung-bak, had 14 press conferences and conversations with the public in the first eight months of his term as president, while former President Roh Moo-hyun had a total of 16.
BY SEO JI-EUN, SONG SU-HYUN [email@example.com]