SEOUL, South Korea (Reuter - President Kim Young-sam on Tuesday made clear he would not surrender to strikers and scrap a new labor law, angering unions that vowed to step up industrial action engulfing the economy.
State prosecutors, meanwhile, were poised to issue arrest warrants against militant union leaders who have defied orders to appear for questioning over nationwide strikes that have been declared illegal.
At a news conference, Kim insisted the new bill, which shatters near-total job security by allowing worker layoffs, would strengthen South Korea's sagging economy.
"It is not an evil law," he declared.
Unions had demanded Kim use his traditional New Year news conference to dump the bill.
Hours after Kim's uncompromising comments, the president of the outlawed Korean Confederation of Trade Unions said he would bring out public sector unions to join stoppages that have crippled shipbuilding yards and car plants.
"We have no choice but to intensify our strikes," Kwon Young-kil told reporters.
Subway drivers and workers at state-owned telecommunications giant Korea Telecom would join industrial action, Kwon said. He did not give a timetable.
"Kim should have offered to talk over the issue," Kwon said. "But there was no offer of talks, let alone an apology." Separately, a union statement said construction and office workers would walk out.
Prosecutors met to decide how to bring union leaders into custody and said a decision would be made by Wednesday.
Kwon and his lieutenants are camped out in a ramshackle tent in the shadow of Seoul's Myongdong Cathedral, guarded by car workers with iron bars ready to resist any police assault on church property.
Hospital workers and unionists at four big broadcasters joined snowballing strikes intended to pressure the government into dropping the law.
The confederation said 217,000 workers were now idle, up from 190,000 on Monday.
Strikers represent just a fraction of South Korea's workforce of more than 10 million. But they are concentrated in huge industrial conglomerates, such as the Hyundai Group, which are the backbone of the export-led economy.
Management at hospitals and broadcasters said the strikes were having little impact.
Only 200 nurses and orderlies walked out at Seoul National University Hospital, the country's leading medical center with a workforce of 4,000, a hospital spokesman said.
"All operations are normal," said Shim Woo Yong.
But Hyundai Motor Co's production had shrunk to 500 automobiles a day from a usual 5,500 since the strike began on Saturday, a company spokesman said.
Official figures showed the strikes were hurting. Total losses from industrial unrest so far were put at $1.4 billion, including $244 million in lost exports.
Kim said the law was needed to enhance South Korea's economic competitiveness and rescue a struggling economy saddled with high costs and low efficiency.
He ruled out a meeting with opposition parties to try to resolve the crisis. "A country that cannot compete is bound to fall behind," Kim said.
Helping companies cut costs and boost sales would narrow South Korea's ballooning trade deficit, Kim said, pledging also to lower interest rates, land prices and transport costs.
Employers have threatened to sue union heads over production losses caused by the strikes, which erupted the day the new bill was rammed through parliament on Dec. 26 with no debate and no opposition deputies present.
Despite heavy snow and freezing temperatures, 6,000 workers rallied in Seoul to condemn Kim and demand the repeal of the law, some drinking fiery rice liquor to stay warm.
"The rich and powerful think they can decide everything by themselves," said nurse Lee Mee-kyung.