South Korean Prime Minister Lee Han-Dong warned Thursday bank workers would be arrested if they resorted to violence during a planned strike against bank restructuring plans.
The warning came a day before some 23,000 staff at six ailing banks are due to go on an indefinite nationwide strike, even though the government has declared the action illegal.
"Any violent protesters engaged in damaging or occupying bank facilities and obstructing operations will face immediate arrest at the scene," the prime minister said in a statement after a cabinet meeting.
"The government will also file a complaint against strike leaders."
But unions at Kookmin, Housing and Commercial (HCB), Kwangju, Cheju and Kyongnam banks reaffirmed they would push ahead with the strike, which is to be joined by more bank unions next week.
The move poses a serious threat to President Kim Dae-Jung's last-ditch efforts to clean up the debt-stricken banking sector through mergers or grouping them in financial holding firms.
Bank workers have rejected the proposed restructuring, insisting it will lead to mass layoffs.
"The indefinite strike at the banks will last until the government meets our demands," said Lee Yong-Duk, who heads an association of bank unions.
The bank union leader demanded that the government repeal the forced mergers as well as the plans to create financial holding companies.
The Federation of Korean Trade Unions (FKTU), the country's largest umbrella union, vowed to join hands with the bank unions, echoing their demands to the government.
"If the government cracks down on the strike, we will launch an all-out, joint struggle with the bank unions," the FKTU said in a statement.
But the prime minister said at the cabinet meeting joined by labor, finance, economy and justice ministers that the government will push ahead with restructuring the financial sector for the good of the nation's economy.
"We reaffirm that the second phase of financial restructuring is an unavoidable choice to enhance the banking industry's competitiveness and will be pushed ahead without delay," the premier said.
In an attempt to stop the strike paralyzing the country's banking system, the cabinet has ordered all banks to deploy extra workers and protect key banking facilities.
President Kim has vowed to finish the bank reforms by the end of the year, putting further pressure on financial authorities to force through the mergers.
The Financial Supervisory Commission (FSC) said this week that Hanvit, Seoulbank, Peace, Kwangju, Cheju and Kyongnam banks had been declared insolvent and ordered them to write off their existing capital.
The capital reduction order paved the way for the government to inject another 7.1 trillion won (5.8 billion dollars) of public funds into the six banks.
But the FSC decision immediately triggered public anger as it reversed an earlier promise not to write off bank share capital and cause financial loss to minority share holders.
Finance and Economy Minister Jin Nyum apologized in a televised speech Thursday for the U-turn but said it was unavoidable.
The South Korean reform crusade is also pushing for the privatization of Korea Telecom and other big state firms.
But thousands of Korea Telecom workers on Thursday staged the fourth day of a partial strike and launched a sit-in protest at a Catholic Cathedral in Seoul -- SEOUL (AFP)
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