South Korea’s president warns of attacks as truck drivers strike enters second day

South Korea’s president warns of attacks as truck drivers strike enters second day

South Korea’s president warns of attacks as truck drivers strike enters second day

By Joyce Lee and Heekyong Yang

SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol warned the government may move to break up a nationwide strike by truck drivers, describing it as an illegal and unacceptable move to take the national supply chain “hostage” under a economic crisis.

Thousands of unionized truck drivers began their second major strike to seek better pay and working conditions in less than six months on Thursday. The action is already disrupting supply chains across the world’s 10th largest economy, affecting carmakers, the cement industry and steelmakers.

Union officials said there were no negotiations or dialogue ongoing with the government. The country’s transport ministry said it requested dialogue with the union on Thursday, but the parties have yet to agree on a date.

Union officials estimated that about 25,000 people joined the strike, out of about 420,000 total transport workers in South Korea. The Transport Ministry said around 7,700 people were expected to turn out for the strike on Friday at 164 locations across the country, down from 9,600 people on Thursday.

“The public will not tolerate taking the logistics system hostage in the face of a national crisis,” Yoon said in a Facebook message late Thursday, noting that exports were key to overcoming economic instability and financial market volatility.

“If the irresponsible denial of transport continues, the government will have no choice but to undergo a series of measures, including a work start order.”

Under South Korean law, during severe transport disruptions, authorities can issue an order to force transport workers back to their jobs. Failure to comply is punishable by up to three years in prison, or a fine of up to 30 million won ($22,550).

Should the government take this option, it would be the first time in South Korea’s history that such an order has been issued. Transport Minister Won Hee-ryong told reporters on Thursday that the ministry has already begun groundwork to issue the order.

The strike comes after South Korea saw exports from October fall by the most in 26 months as the trade deficit persisted for a seventh month, underscoring the slowdown in the export-driven economy.

Amid the economic gloom, Yoon’s approval rating remained largely flat for a fifth week at 30%, according to Gallup Korea on Friday, although his focus on economic issues drew positive responses.

‘HARD-LINE RESPONSE’

The head of the Cargo Truckers Solidarity Union (CTSU), Lee Bong-ju, said truckers had no choice but to strike after the government halted negotiations.

“The Yoon Suk-yeol government is threatening a hard-line response without any attempt to stop the strike,” Lee told reporters on Thursday.

On the first day of the strike, the Korea International Trade Association (KITA) said it received 19 reports of cases of disrupted logistics. These included an inability to source raw materials, higher logistics costs and delivery delays that led to fines and trade with foreign buyers being scrapped.

In one case, raw materials for a chemical company were delivered under police protection after the transport vehicle was blocked by striking truckers from entering a factory, KITA said.

The cement industry suffered an output loss of an estimated 19 billion won ($14.26 million) on Thursday, lobby group Korea Cement Association said, after shipments fell to less than 10,000 tonnes due to the strike.

This compares with South Korea’s 200,000 tonnes of cement per day during the high season between September and early December. Construction sites risk running out of building materials after the weekend.

The industry ministry said the steel sector also saw shipments fall on Thursday. POSCO, the country’s largest steel producer, declined to comment on the scope.

Meanwhile, workers at Hyundai Motor’s Ulsan plant are expected to drive about 1,000 new cars to customers directly on Friday, after delivering about 50 cars on Thursday, a representative of a separate union at the plant told Reuters. So far, there was no impact on automatic production, the official said.

Drivers recruited by Hyundai Motor’s logistics affiliate Hyundai Glovis also began delivering some Kia Corp cars by driving them directly from Kia’s Gwangju factory to customers, a Kia official told Reuters.

The official did not say how many Kia vehicles would be delivered directly to buyers.

($1 = 1,332.4700 won)

(Reporting by Joyce Lee and Heekyong Yang; Additional reporting by Choonsik Yoo; Editing by Gerry Doyle and Kenneth Maxwell)

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