SEOUL -- Chung Se Yung, chairman of Hyundai Group, has a very clear opinion about unions -- it's better not to have them.

"When we didn't have unions we could tell {the workers} what to do," Chung explained, recalling the times not so long ago when the conglomerate's labor force obediently followed orders.

That's no longer the case. Sparked by the winds of political democracy, bitter strikes swept across South Korea last August and September. The strikes against Hyundai, the corporate flagship of South Korea's economy, were the most bitter because of the firm's tradition as a bastion of antiunionism.

In the aftermath of the strikes, independent unions were formed at many of the country's most powerful companies, including Hyundai.

Many experts said the strikes may have laid the groundwork for greater long-term equality between workers and management, and served to avoid a more serious explosion later on. "The real therapeutic value may have been in bringing about a more mature labor-management situation," said a Western diplomat in Seoul.

But as the country's economy rolls ahead into what is expected to be another year of impressive growth, the labor situation in South Korea stands out as a potential weak spot. The ability of Korean managers to fully adapt to the new era of give-and-take with unions will strongly influence whether labor unrest hobbles the country's future growth prospects, experts said. And all eyes are focused on mighty Hyundai, where the odds for trouble are highest.

"The transition for Hyundai will be very difficult," said Scott Kalb, who heads the Seoul office of the London brokerage firm James Capel & Co. He describes the firm's pre-August record of labor relations as abysmal. "If there were any problems, the company would call up the government and the government would send in the police ... it's no accident that {Hyundai} was hardest hit by the strikes."

Chung, who previously was head of the group's car-making unit, said things are changing. He was named chairman last February, taking over from his elder brother, Chung Ju Yung, who became "honorary" chairman. The elder Chung is a nearly mythical rags-to-riches figure in South Korea's economic history, an iron-fisted entrepreneur who founded the firm in 1947 and built it from scratch into a powerhouse that last year had sales of more than $20 billion, equal to about 15 percent of South Korea's output.

Over the years, Hyundai developed into something of a mirror image of its founder: lean, aggressive, disciplined. The elder Chung ruled the company with the same kind of bare-knuckled firmness used by South Korea's succession of military rulers. But due to the process of democratization that prompted the strikes and led to the Dec. 16 election of Roh Tae Woo as president, Hyundai is trying to adapt. It's unclear, though, whether the management's attitude toward workers can keep up with the times.

Chung Se Yung, the current chairman, considers himself as representing a new generation of leadership devoted to "the way of consensus." Although he opposes unions, he is willing to accept their existence and work with them. He also endorses the democratization moving through South Korea, although he thinks the pace may be too fast. "There was no training or education -- one day it came and there was chaos," he said. "It should come gradually."

He looks back distastefully on the strikes. "It came suddenly," he said. "Both sides were inexperienced in negotiations. But now we are beginning to learn about each other." As for the future, he sees "tough negotiations" when labor contracts are renegotiated next spring, but believes that any strikes against Hyundai will be settled within a few days.

That may be wishful thinking, according to many experts. Although the elder Chung Ju Yung is the "honorary" chairman, he is said to still call the shots on major issues affecting Hyundai -- including labor relations. "I doubt that {Chung Se Yung} has the power to change very much," said Kalb of James Capel. "I don't think he's been brought in to reform the company. I think his mandate is to do things better, but not make waves."