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SEOUL, Dec. 26 (Yonhap) -- Labor and management of the state-run railway operator resumed their working-level negotiations on Thursday to end a strike that has dragged on for 18 days, both sides said.
Three representatives from each side began discussing key issues, including privatization of the rail monopoly, at the company's Seoul headquarters at around 4:20 p.m., according to the two sides. It was the first round of their working-level negotiations in about two weeks.
The talks came after Choi Yeon-hye, president of the Korea Railroad Corp. (KORAIL), met union leaders earlier in the day at the Jogye Temple in central Seoul. It was their first meeting since the strike began on Dec. 9.
Park Tae-man, a deputy union leader, fled to the temple on Christmas Eve with three other members of the union wanted by police to avoid arrest and seek 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."
"I came here to meet him upon hearing news reports that he is here," Choi told reporters after meeting Park. "I think the path to dialogue is open," she said, heralding the resumption of negotiations.
Park also said he had a sincere meeting with the company president.
"We decided to reopen negotiations as a result of the meeting. We ask for full support from the land ministry and the National Assembly," he told reporters.
More than 8,700 KORAIL workers walked off the job 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 has promised to revoke the subsidiary's rail service license if stakes are sold to private investors. But labor leaders, opposition parties and other critics say they can't buy the assurances.
The resumption of talks also came after the Jogye Order, the country's largest Buddhist sect, pledged to help resolve the dispute in response to an appeal from the deputy union leader.
"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 on Thursday. The sect then arranged a meeting between the union leader and the KORAIL president at the temple.
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.
Earlier in the day, the state-run railway operator said it put out a public notice to hire 660 workers to cope with the longest-ever rail strike.
The new workers -- 280 train attendants and 380 drivers -- will be placed to work as soon as they finish 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.
Rail services have been affected by the ongoing strike, the longest-ever rail strike in the country, as the operator has been 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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