State rail workers end prolonged strike

SEOUL, Dec. 30 (Yonhap) -- Thousands of state rail workers ended their three-week-long strike Monday after rival parties promised to form a parliamentary subcommittee on preventing privatization of rail services.

The labor union of state-run Korea Railroad Corp. (KORAIL) said its members will return to work by 11:00 a.m. Tuesday. Some 8,700 unionized workers began the walkout on Dec. 9 in protest of a government plan to create a KORAIL subsidiary to run some high-speed train services. The union suspects the move is a precursor to privatization.

The government has repeatedly assured workers that it has no intention of privatizing rail services, and promised to revoke the subsidiary's rail service license if any stake is sold to a private sector. But labor leaders have been skeptical of the assurances.

"Unionized workers will continue to protest the government move after they return to work," KORAIL union chief Kim Myung-hwan said at a press conference.

Earlier in the day, leaders of the rival parties on the parliamentary transportation committee secured the breakthrough deal with Kim. The three-point agreement calls for strikers to get back to work as soon as the subcommittee is formed.

The subcommittee's establishment was seen as aimed at backing up the government's assurances of no rail privatization. It provided the union with a face-saving way out of the walkout, as the government has stuck to its no-compromise stance despite disruptions in rail services.

The "subcommittee on rail industry development" will be composed of a total of eight lawmakers from the ruling Saenuri Party and the main opposition Democratic Party (DP), officials said.

Rep. Kang Seok-ho of the Saenuri Party will head the committee which will hold its first meeting Tuesday morning, they said. KORAIL president Choi Yeon-hye has also been notified to join the meeting, they added.

If necessary, a policy advisory panel that includes officials from KORAIL, its union, the government and civilian experts can also be established, according to the agreement. The advisory panel will support the subcommittee's work in discussing various thorny issues, it added.

Rival parties all welcomed the dramatic outcome.

"The party welcomes the union's decision to withdraw the strike," said Saenuri spokeswoman Min Hyun-joo. "The committee should make efforts to minimize losses incurred from the illegal strike."

The DP party, meanwhile, said that the workers' opinions should be reflected in the controversial reorganizing process at the parliamentary committee.

"It is a good thing that a peaceful resolution came out based on the parliamentary agreement," said DP spokesman Park Yong-jin, adding that the government should abide by the agreement.

KORAIL management also welcomed the agreement reached at the National Assembly.

"We welcome the union withdrawing the strike and respect the parliamentary agreement," KORAIL said in a press release.

Police and prosecutors, however, said they will still continue pursuing the union's leaders for staging the "illegal" walkout regardless of the dramatic deal reached by the rival parties.

Kim and other several union leaders have been hiding inside Jogye Temple in downtown Seoul after district courts issued arrest warrants for defying summons by prosecutors.

"We will detain KORAIL union leader Kim as soon as he comes out," said a senior police officer.

Prosecutors also reiterated that they will deal with the unauthorized walkout in accordance with the law.

"Those responsible for the illegal acts will be held liable despite a decision to withdraw the walkout," a prosecutor of the Supreme Prosecutors' Office said, adding that the prosecution office will execute the arrest warrants as well.

After government law enforcement authorities vowed to continue with the investigation, KORAIL's union said that its leaders will not yet respond to police summons.

"There were no discussions yet about KORAIL union leader Kim voluntarily appearing before the police for questioning," said a union official.

The longest-ever rail strike in the country's history has affected bullet-train KTX service as well as other passenger and cargo train operations nationwide.

KORAIL was forced to cut passenger train services by around 24 percent for more than a week, it said. The daily amount of cargo shipments has also dropped to an average of 30 percent of the normal volume.

In response, the management previously vowed to punish 490 union leaders for their involvement in the strike, adding that it will take legal action to seek compensation for financial damages.

The standoff heated up on Friday night when the government issued a formal license for a new affiliate to operate the new high-speed line from Suseo-dong in Seoul to the southern port city of Busan.

Despite the withdrawal, there still remain issues to be solved as KORAIL's union filed a suit with a court to invalidate the license issuance.

Ten union leaders on Monday submitted the suit against the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport, which is in charge of the railways, with the Seoul Administrative Court, court officials said.

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