South Korean auto workers strike over US beef imports

JAE-SOON CHANG, AP, July 2, 2008

SEOUL, South Korea - Tens of thousands of auto workers in South Korea went on strike Wednesday to oppose the government's lifting of a ban on U.S. beef imports.

Partial walkouts at Kia Motors Corp. and South Korea's largest carmaker, Hyundai Motor Co., were the centerpiece of a one-day strike by the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions to protest U.S. beef imports and the pro-business policies of President Lee Myung-bak. U.S. beef returned to South Korean store shelves Tuesday under a new import agreement.

About 20,000 workers at Kia Motors Corp. stopped work for two hours, union officials said. Some 13,000 other Kia workers on the night shift and about 45,000 union members at Hyundai Motor Co. planned to do the same later in the day.

The 600,000-member KCTU said about 130,000 workers across the nation were expected to join the strike, which would also include workers at textile and chemical factories. It also urged members to participate in candlelight rallies against beef imports later Wednesday.

The government has billed the planned work stoppage as an "illegal and political" strike unrelated to working conditions. But KCTU says it wants to protect its members and other people from mad cow disease.

"This is not a political strike, but a strike that is aimed at protecting our right to health," KCTU leader Lee Seok-haeng told reporters. "We want to live long and healthy."

Lee said his group plans to launch a nationwide consumer campaign to boycott American beef.

Kia said the walkout is expected to cost the company about $11.4 million in lost production of about 900 vehicles.

Hyundai's union said it is striking not only over the beef issue, but also over its stalled collective wage negotiation with management. Last year, the strike-prone union drew praise after concluding wage talks without a strike for the first time in a decade.

The walkouts come a day after U.S. beef returned to South Korean store shelves for the first time under the much-criticized beef import deal with Washington, though the sale was limited to one store run by a U.S. beef importer.

U.S. beef imports to South Korea have been largely banned since 2003, when the first case of mad cow disease was discovered in the United States. South Korea's new pro-U.S. President Lee Myung-bak agreed to lift the import ban in April just before a summit with President Bush.

But the move provoked a backlash over health concerns spurred in part by false media reports about risks, along with a sense that South Korea had backed down too easily to American pressure.

As the protests peaked in June at 80,000 people, the Cabinet offered to resign and Lee reshuffled top aides. Seoul negotiated an amendment to the import deal last month to limit shipments to beef from cattle younger than 30 months, believed less susceptible to mad cow disease.

The government has vowed to get tough with the increasingly violent rallies.

In Washington, the White House announced that President Bush would visit South Korea on Aug. 5-6 before heading to the Beijing Olympics. Bush had originally been expected to go to Seoul next week when he visits Japan for the G-8 summit, but the trip did not materialize amid the protests.

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