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POSCO Strike Worries Pohang Residents

Posted July. 21, 2006 03:02,   


July 20 marked one week since the construction workers union of Pohang, North Gyeongsang Province, seized the headquarters of POSCO.

It rained in downtown Pohang, creating a desolate atmosphere. A taxi driver in his 50s headed toward the headquarters of POSCO located in Nam-gu, Pohang and said, “If this isn’t a war zone, what is it? I am so afraid that my skin crawls. It is so sad to see my hometown where I have spent my entire life turn into chaos. It isn’t a problem that this affects my work, but I am concerned about this regretful situation.”

Unlike the Pohang steel mill, the headquarters building of POSCO inside the Pohang steel industry complex looks like a park surrounded by woods, but due to the siege of the union workers it has now become a complete ruin.

The windows between the fifth and the 12th floors, which are occupied by about 1,000 union workers, have placards like “Fight to the end” and the surroundings of the building are covered with waste and trash.

The union workers threw garbage, plastic bottles filled with water, and stones taken from the walls’ of the building outside and showed their determination to continue fighting.

When Cheong Wa Dae and both ruling and opposition parties announced yesterday that they would firmly deal with the illegal siege, the tensions around the building escalated to war zone level right before the start of a battle. The union workers who have been occupying the surroundings of the building for over a week, and the 7,000 policemen confronting them were just waiting orders to enter the building.

A day earlier, on July 19, about 5,000 union members of the Yeongnam Region branch of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) held street demonstrations in downtown Pohang and almost clashed with local shop owners in the process.

The shop owners and demonstrators exchanged verbal lashes, the former demanding, “Stop the demonstration so we can go on about our business,” while the latter armed with steel pipes threatened, “If you want to continue your business, keep your mouth shut.”

The shop owners lamented, “The steel pipes seized by police amounted to a small hill. Is the Republic of Korea, a country that is lawless the middle of the day, a law-governed country?

As of July 20, about 900 union members have left the sit-in protest, but about 400 hard-line union members remain, and it is predicted that it will be difficult for them to end the protest voluntarily. In order to increase unity during the union members’ strike, the union leadership has prepared guidelines to take strong disciplinary actions against those that do not participate. They prepared six types of penalties ranging from membership revoking if members do not participate to suspending union membership if their strike participation days are too few.

Some point out that the Democratic Labor Party’s (DLP) support of the sit-in protest only worsened the problem. Kim Suk-hyang, the wife of the union leader Lee Ji-kyung who led the siege, is the vice chairperson of the Democratic Labor Party (DLP) Gyeongbuk Province Branch, and was elected to Gyeongbuk Provincial Assembly member as a DLP candidate at the recent local elections.

Those who are nervous about the current situation are neither union workers, neither police, nor POSCO officials, but Pohang citizens.

The union is most concerned about meeting its demands, the police about whether to disperse or to enter, POSCO officials about normalizing the company, but the citizens of Pohang are most concerned about Pohang City.

Jukdo Market is the largest traditional market in the east coast where one can have a glimpse at the minds of mundane Pohang people. The worries of the shop owners were beyond imaginations. They sat in groups of four or five citing concerns about the POSCO siege and the long rainy season, while waiting for customers that would not come.

Jukdo Fish Market Association President Park Se-yeong, 56, said, “Often, people come to POSCO then stop by Jukdo market to eat or buy fish, but now no one is coming. I’m very worried because not only is business bad, but also because Pohang’s image might become too tarnished and outside visitors might not come here.”

Pohang entrepreneurs are anxious lest Pohang might become branded as the worst place to conduct business. Business owners all point out that the violent images of POSCO, the symbol of Pohang economy, being sieged broadcasted all over the country is critical.

Under such circumstances, KCTU plans to hold another massive demonstration in Pohang on July 22, sending dark clouds to Pohang.

Kwon-Hyo Lee boriam@donga.com