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Kim finds South Korean 'economic miracle' doesn't trickle down to her

"I think it's a good thing for South Korea that we have had all this economic growth," says Kim Sun-ok. "But the benefits that have trickled down to us, the workers, are limited."

Miss Kim wraps candy at Lotte Confectionery Company. Petite, dainty, she talks in soft tones, her small hands resting quietly on her lap. But there is a sparkle in her eyes, and the set of her mouth is firm.

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Miss Kim intends to run for the chairmanship of her factory union when it meets in a special session May 9. If successful, she will represent 2,700 workers -- 80 percent female -- in wage and other negotiations with management.

She wants a union that will genuinely represent the workers -- not one that is in management's pocket. Under the authoritarian rule of the late President Park, most union leaders were stooges of the company. That is why in the six months since his assassination, many unions have held such meetings to elect new officials and make demands on management.

This correspondent met Miss Kim and two of her friends. Kim Chong-ah and Che Chongrei, at the Yongdongpo Urban Industrial Mission, a Presbyterian-run center for workers. During much of the Park era, government and company officials eyed the mission with extreme suspicion.

But in the more liberal atmosphere of President Choi Kyu-ha's transitional government, the center is now person grata at the government Labor Office.

(South Korea has no ministry of labor, although President Park had promised to establish one during the 1971 election campaign. The former ruling party, the Democratic Republicans, now pledge to create a ministry-level labor office as soon as they return to power.)

The director of the industrial mission, the Rev. Cho Chi-song, thinks a restructuring of the Federation of Korean Trade Unions (FKTU) is urgently needed. Already the former FKTU chairman has been forced to resign because of alleged collaboration with the previous government.

"We need new leaders elected democratically -- by the free vote of the workers," says Mrs. Cho. "Then, and only then, can we find industrial peace."

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South Korea has been reeling from a rash of worker disputes, strikes, sit-ins , and demonstrations since the start of the year. Labor Office statistics show that while there were only 105 instances of collective action by workers in 1979 , there have been 719 in the first four months of this year.

(The most common form of collective action was neither a strike nor a sit-in, but a refusal to cooperate with management -- a kind of go-slow that plays havoc with productivity. Of the 719 cases reported, 672 fell within this category.)

There have been important changes in the composition of South Korea's labor force since the mid-1960s boost in industrialization, according to Prof. Park Young-ki of Sogang University. While the total number of employees outside of farming was about 3.5 million in 1965, this figure had jumped to 8.8 million by the end of 1979.

Furthermore, at the end of last year 75 percent of the workers in manufacturing were under 29 years old -- up from 52 percent in 1965. In 1960, only 28 percent of women worked. That figure had risen to 44 percent by the end of last year, and most of those were between the ages of 19 and 24.

"Young workers are much more likely to engage in collective action than older workers," Professor Park observes. The educational level of workers has also risen: The number of college and high school graduates has tripled since 1965.

These changes meant that even without a change of government, South Korea would have had to revise labor policies, in Professor Park's view. Today labor unions do not enjoy the right to strike. Their right to collective bargaining is severely restricted. In practice, they are forced to seek governmental mediation in almost all disputes.

Miss Kim and her friends feel that what has been described as South Korea's ecomonic miracle has been achieved largely at the expense of workers.

Miss Kim, 27, has worked at Lotte for more than seven years. She earns 80, 000 won per month (about $137). Since it would take at least half this to pay for an apartment of her own, she shares a room (outside kitchen, toilet but no bath) with three friends.

Inflation is running at a rate of more than 40 percent, although officially last year the consumer price index went up only 21.2 percent. So far, Miss Kim's company has promised only a 10 percent wage hike.

(A friend, Kim Chong-ah, who work at a nylon company, said her company had promised an average 33 percent increase this year. This seems to be the pattern in this year of spiralling prices.)

Miss Kim also has a personal problem. If elected Union chairman, she intends to carry out her job -- however time-consuming. Will her husband-to-be permit this? "I don't know," she says. "We haven't talked it out yet. If he objects, I am afraid I will just have to postpone my marriage."

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