SEOUL, AUG. 11 -- Ruling party presidential candidate Roh Tae Woo said today that a wave of labor disputes threatens the drive toward democracy in South Korea and appealed to management and labor to exercise "self-restraint" to resolve the growing strife.
Roh said in an interview that "we should watch very carefully" what he charged were radical "outside forces" that seek to take advantage of the sudden release of longstanding government pressure to hold down wages.
But Roh said the main demands of workers for higher pay were reasonable and that, in the past, the government was "unfair" in intervening too extensively in labor-management relations.
Roh's comments came as wildcat strikes disrupted operations at about 200 companies, including some of South Korea's largest and most successful enterprises.
Hyundai Motor Co., the automobile exporter, was forced to shut down for the second time in a week because strikes among its suppliers cut off the flow of essential parts. Daewoo and Kia motor companies also were shut down by supplier strikes, while walkouts closed major shipyards and coal mines.
Roh, who on June 29 dramatically embraced opposition demands for direct presidential elections and other reforms, said loosening government authority was bound to lead to "exploding demands in various sectors of our society. This is what we are seeing."
Government officials, businessmen and newspaper commentators have expressed concern that the strikes may endanger South Korea's remarkable economic success, based in large degree on low wage rates and plentiful exports.
Labor Minister Lee Hun Ki warned in a statement that "if labor disputes continue to threaten the economy, the government will take tough actions against them." He did not specify what steps were being considered.
Roh was more cautious in tone, saying the government will intervene only "if the situation goes really out of control."
"I can't entirely rule out the possibility that something undesirable will happen" in the event of deepening labor strife, Roh said. He added, however, that the current situation is "far from" any possible military intervention in civil government due to the labor disputes.
The drive toward democracy arising from extensive demonstrations in June and capped by Roh's startling decisions of June 29 is considered an opportunity to end decades of military rule. But widespread labor disputes, a very sensitive matter in this country, were among the contributing factors in the military takeovers of 1961 and 1980.
Opposition leader Kim Dae Jung, one of two major contenders to oppose Roh in the elections promised for late this year, expressed sympathy with the "moderate demands" of South Korean workers.
Kim said in an interview that workers were seeking "proper wage increases" that did not exceed the pace of increasing productivity and replacement of "puppet unions" previously controlled by government security organs.
Some of the work stoppages pit established and licensed unions against new associations claiming to represent workers' interests.
Labor leaders have been very moderate, Kim said. "There have been no political demands or radical remarks," he said.
Kim Young Sam, the other principal opposition leader, also was sympathetic to many of the workers' demands, saying they deserve wage increases. In a separate interview, he said the labor unrest "has become inevitable because during 26 years of military dictatorship the government suppressed labor." Kim added that only speedy movement toward presidential elections could defuse the crisis.
Several industrialists, as well as government officials, have made the distinction between moderate demands for higher pay, which they say can be accommodated, and "political" protests by unionists that seem centered on attacking the governmental and economic system.
"A significant number of people remaining underground try to incite labor disputes . . . to make labor demands more drastic and excessive," Roh charged.
The former general and close friend and military academy classmate of President Chun Doo Hwan also said in the interview that:His substantive relationship with Chun has changed since he took over the responsibility for forging new political policies in June, but he discounted reports that his embrace of democracy has caused strains with the president. On a personal level, "our friendship and loyalty to each other has not changed," Roh said. Some military officers may be uncomfortable with the current political situation, but "the military as a group will not do anything that goes against political neutrality."