SEOUL, SEPT. 24 -- As the spasms of labor unrest that rocked South Korea for the past two months fade away, new trade figures indicate that the nationwide strikes caused less immediate economic damage than originally feared.
The last major labor dispute in South Korea ended Tuesday when 20,000 workers at Hyundai Heavy Industries in Ulsan returned to their jobs. About 5,000 riot police were on hand, but authorities reported only a few minor clashes with 300 strikers who tried to block the back-to-work movement.
Meanwhile, the Bank of Korea released its monthly trade figures for August, which showed the country registering a current account surplus of $468 million. Although the figure is down from a surplus of $569 million a year earlier and far below the July total of $1.12 billion, trade experts said it highlighted an underlying strength in Korea's economy.
"The surplus shows there is tremendous resiliency in the economy despite the strikes in August," said a western diplomat who specializes in trade issues. The diplomat, who asked not to be identified, pointed out that some Korean trade officials had predicted a current account deficit last month.
The surplus for the January-August period surged to $5.68 billion from $1.58 billion a year earlier, the Bank of Korea said. Its figures showed that August exports jumped 20 percent from a year earlier. The bank has estimated first-half growth in the gross national product at nearly 15 percent.
South Korean trade officials are playing down the current account and export figures. With protectionist sentiment increasing in the United States and Western Europe, the Korean strategy apparently is aimed at trying to deflect attention from the country's continuing success in exporting such products as computers, cars, ships and oil rigs, observers said.
But western diplomats here don't discount the potential long-term effect of the strikes. More than 3,000 labor disputes erupted in August, but only a handful remain unsettled. Although the lost production can be made up with overtime, wage increases could have a long-term impact. Wages were boosted from 15 to 20 percent, Korean officials estimated.
A senior government trade official said the wage increases will force Korean companies to increase prices, reducing their competitive edge in international markets. He also voiced fears over what he said is a new drop in worker morale and in the quality of Korean products.
"Workers are not sure of whether they've gotten what they wanted in the first place," he said. The official, who asked not to be identified, added, "They are still struggling to gain more bargaining power."
But the western diplomat, pointing to the relatively low level of Korean wages, said the fears in Seoul may be exaggerated.
"There might be a rapid increase in labor costs, but there's no cause for terrific alarm," he said. "The Koreans are in a position to go forward with market-opening measures."
The strikes had nearly crippled South Korea -- politically and economically -- for the month of August and into September. At the Hyundai Heavy Industries facility in Ulsan, the walkout had turned violent, with demonstrations leading to the burning of cars and the temporary occupation of Ulsan's City Hall.
Police cracked down two weeks ago by arresting scores of Hyundai workers, including Lee Hyong Gon, leader of the independent union that organized the strike. News reports this week said Lee appealed from his jail cell for the workers to end the 21-day strike.
Company officials have promised that they would seek the release of jailed unionists once the strike was halted. The company has agreed to a 14 percent wage increase, which is less than the 17 percent the workers had demanded, but more than the 11 percent originally offered by the shipbuilding arm of the Hyundai group.
Trade experts and diplomats here had voiced fears that the festering Hyundai strike could encourage another round of labor unrest. But with that dispute settled, many officials here believe the worst is over.