Pressure mounts on S Korean president as truckers strike


SOUTH KOREA: South Korean truckers extended their strike yesterday over high fuel costs, adding to President Lee Myung-bak's woes, but a threatened major anti-government protest fizzled out.

Thousands marched to mark the sixth anniversary of the deaths of two schoolgirls struck by a US military vehicle, but the numbers fell far below organisers' expectations.

The road accident in 2002 had sparked anti-US rallies that turned the tide in a 2002 presidential election.

Some analysts said the public may be suffering from "protest fatigue" after more than a month of rallies against Lee.

Protesters have criticised Mr Lee, who pledged to draw Seoul closer to Washington, for kowtowing to the United States.

He won a December election with pledges to grow the economy by 6 per cent this year.

Truckers voted to extend their strike after talks on higher pay and demands for cheaper diesel broke down. The strike threatens to hit freight transport in export-dependent S Korea, and is one of many by truckers around the world against soaring fuel prices.

The Korea International Trade Association estimated the damage from the strike could be 128 billion won (€80.48 million) a day, local media reported.

Unionised truckers represent only a small portion of drivers but play a key role in moving goods in and out of ports. Some 14,000 walked off the job yesterday after talks on higher pay and demands for cheaper diesel collapsed.

The government reaction to the breakdown in negotiations was to mobilise military trucks and schedule more cargo rail services to transport goods, but such moves have sparked clashes in previous truckers' strikes.

The transport ministry said it was revoking striking truckers' annual fuel subsidy payments of some 15 million won (€9,400), and will begin providing police escorts to strike-breaking vehicles.

Minister for transport Chung Jong-hwan called on businesses to consider raising payments to truckers to help end the strike.

Last night, former combat soldiers and right-wing groups angered by the mass rallies took to the street of central Seoul to try to halt the protest and confronted liberal group members in kerbside shouting and shoving matches.