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SEOUL, Dec. 26 (Yonhap) -- The state-run railway operator said on Thursday it is recruiting hundreds of substitute workers to cope with a protracted strike by its union members especially as it is the year-end peak season.
The Korea Railroad Corp. (KORAIL) said it put out a public notice to hire 660 workers on Thursday as thousands of unionists went into the 18th day of their strike over a government plan that they see as a prelude to privatizing the state rail operator.
The new workers -- 280 train attendants and 380 drivers -- will be placed to work as soon as they finish receiving job training, the company said.
"We are recruiting the new manpower to ensure safety of rail services as those working, not the striking unionists, are highly exhausted," Jang Jin-bok, a spokesman of the rail company, said. "We plan to hire more if the strike is protracted further," he added.
More than 8,700 KORAIL workers walked off their jobs on Dec. 9 in protest against a government plan to establish a KORAIL subsidiary to run some high-speed train services. The union suspects the move is a precursor to privatizing the rail monopoly.
The government has repeatedly assured that it has no intention of privatizing the planned subsidiary and promised to revoke the subsidiary's rail service license if its stakes are sold to private investors. But labor leaders, opposition parties and other critics say they can't buy the assurances.
On Thursday, hundreds of policemen continued to surround the Jogye Temple in central Seoul after four union leaders were confirmed to be taking refuge there.
But police say they are not considering sending officers into the temple to arrest the hiding unionists because it is one of the most symbolic temples in the country long perceived as a shelter for labor activists being wanted by police.
Park Tae-man, deputy union leader, fled to the temple on Christmas Eve with three other members of the union who are wanted by police to avoid arrest and ask for help from the religious community.
The police have court-issued arrest warrants for 25 union leaders for waging the strike that the government has defined as being "illegal."
The Jogye Order, the country's largest Buddhist sect, said on Thursday it will help resolve the dispute.
"We cannot turn a blind eye to a laborer who religiously and humanly appeals for help while in trouble, and it's quite natural for us to protect and help him as far as we can," the Jogye Order said in a statement. The sect said its committee in charge of settling social disputes will work to help resolve the issue.
KORAIL President Choi Yeon-hye visited the temple in the afternoon to persuade the unionists once again to return to work.
The government also stepped up its call on the rail workers to return to work immediately, assuring that its plan to establish a KORAIL subsidiary has nothing to do with privatization.
"I ask the union workers to stop holding the people and the national economy hostage, get back to work and put together their efforts to tide over the global economic crisis," Finance Minister Hyun Oh-seok said in a statement broadcast live.
"Despite the president's assurance that she will not push for privatization, the union continues the strike without a cause. This is like cutting the artery of our economy and throwing cold water over the nascent recovery mood," he added.
Rail services have been affected by the ongoing strike, the longest-ever rail strike in the country, as the operator was forced to run its passenger and freight services at an average of 76.1 percent of its normal level.
But the company says the services will be greatly reduced to their minimum levels starting next week.
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