SEOUL, AUG. 22 -- A 22-year-old shipyard worker was killed today on Koje Island during a clash between locked-out laborers from the giant Daewoo shipyard and riot policemen, police said.
The worker, Lee Suk Kyu, became the first fatality of worker unrest that has surged here in the form of more than 1,000 strikes since July 1, when President Chun Doo Hwan accepted opposition demands for free elections and political liberalization.
People rarely are killed in South Korean protests, and when they are, they usually are portrayed as martyrs by government opponents. The death in July of a student who had been in a coma after being struck by a tear gas grenade during street demonstrations in June briefly led to renewed clashes between students and police.
Today's death came as other labor protests seemed to moderate somewhat, with about as many strikes being settled as starting. Thousands of city bus drivers in Seoul, for example, struck early this morning, but within a few hours most of them were driving their routes again.
The drivers had rejected an 11 percent wage increase that their union leaders had recommended they accept. But after brief strikes, most drivers settled individually with the 89 private firms that provide bus service in Seoul, in most cases accepting the 11 percent raise and slightly higher fringe benefits.
The roller-coaster course of the bus drivers' dispute during the past few days typified the unprecedented surge of worker unrest here this week, during which hundreds of unions struck, settled and in some cases struck again.
By today, many South Koreans said the extraordinary events of the week, coming in a society that until recently has been tightly controlled, had left them almost breathless, caught between exhilaration and anxiety. There was widespread fear that the labor protests could derail South Korea's democratization by exposing the nation to "leftist subversives," as Chun warned, or by creating chaos that would invite a military coup, as others suggested. But there was also amazement that, for the first time in years, rank-and-file workers managed to stage peaceful, usually moderate protests and in many cases won their demands.
After years of keeping wages low to promote fast growth and high exports, the government is urging employers to respond positively to workers' demands for raises. One western diplomat said that for the first time the government has to worry about public opinion.
"It's politically stupid to be antilabor and politically smart to be prolabor, so everyone now is mildly prolabor," the diplomat said.
An executive at one of the bus companies that Labor Minister Lee Hun Kee had urged to grant an 11 percent wage hike spoke for many employers when he complained about "one-sided government pressure."
"The government is pressuring us beyond the limits which companies can afford," said Kim Han Ook, executive director of the Sobu Transport Co. The politicians, he said, "have to think about their popularity; there's an election coming up."
Although the government has intervened in two high-profile disputes, the bus strike and Hyundai group strike, the diplomat said he believes that officials still will try to stay out of most disputes. He said neither the government nor opposition leaders believe they can profit from close involvement in the strikes.
Overshadowed by the worker unrest, ruling and opposition politicians continued to progress in negotiations to draft a new constitution leading to free elections in the fall. Politicians said they were eager to show dramatic success before students, whose street protests in June triggered this summer's move toward democracy, return to school in September.
The impact of any good news became uncertain, however, in the wake of Lee Suk Kyu's death. The deadly clash came when workers took to the streets to protest Daewoo Shipyard and Machinery Ltd.'s decision Friday to close its yard because of labor disruptions.
Daewoo, with 15,000 workers the nation's second largest shipyard, belongs to one of South Korea's big four conglomerates. The shipyard is the major employer on the southeast coast's Koje Island, where U.S. forces interned North Korean prisoners of war during the 1950-53 Korean conflict.
Thousands of workers at Daewoo began picketing for higher wages about two weeks ago. The company's president, Yun Young Sok, suspended operations Friday, saying that negotiations had been fruitless and that workers would receive 60 percent of their pay during the closure.
Angry at the decision, about 3,000 workers marched through the streets of Okpo outside the shipyard, damaging a tourist hotel and clashing violently with police, who fired tear gas grenades. Lee and 20 other workers were reported injured.
Lee died from chest injuries, police said. But they did not say whether a grenade caused the injury. One Seoul newspaper, the Chosun Ilbo, said a Koje physician had reported that Lee died from a grenade fragment that pierced his lung.
Reports from the scene said workers ransacked the hotel room by room, believing that shipyard managers were holed up there. After Lee died, workers armed with sticks and rocks surrounded the mortuary to keep police from taking the body.
Daewoo is the second conglomerate to face serious labor disruptions. Six Hyundai factories in Ulsan, including the automobile firm that produces Hyundai Excels for export to the United States, were closed for three days this week and reopened only after a deputy labor minister persuaded management to deal with newly elected union leaders instead of company-sanctioned unions.
Labor strife also visited Seoul's tourist industry today, as bellhops, maids and busboys struck at two of the city's premier hotels, the Lotte and the Seoul Plaza. As workers turned hotel lobbies into arenas for speeches, dancing and celebration, guests, finding restaurants closed and beds unmade, checked out in droves, hoteliers said.
As many as 1,000 food service and ground maintenance employes at Seoul's Kimpo International Airport also struck today, delaying 170 flights from 30 minutes to three hours. Officials at the airport, which handles about 350 flights daily, said Kimpo could be seriously snarled Sunday if workers did not return.