June 13, 2008 / 1:53 AM / 11 years ago

South Korea truckers' strike adds to Lee's woes

SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korean truckers extended their strike on Friday over high fuel costs, adding to President Lee Myung-bak’s woes just past 100 days in office, but a threatened major anti-government protest fizzled out.

A striking trucker walks past trucks parked in front of a port in Gwangyang, south of Seoul June 12, 2008 after the regional union of truckers in Gwangyang began their strike early Thursday. South Korean truckers voted on Monday to strike over high oil prices, piling more pressure on the export-dependent country's new president whose policies have sparked mass street protests. REUTERS/Hyung Min-woo/Yonhap

Thousands marched to mark the sixth anniversary of the deaths of two schoolgirls struck by a U.S. military vehicle, but the numbers fell far below organizers’ expectations.

The road accident in 2002 had sparked anti-U.S. rallies that turned the tide in a 2002 presidential election.

Some analysts said the public may be suffering from “protest fatigue” after more than a month of rallies against Lee.

Protesters have criticized Lee, who pledged to draw Seoul closer to Washington, for kowtowing to the United States.

Lee stormed to victory in a December presidential election with pledges to grow Asia’s fourth-largest economy by 6 percent this year, which economists now say is overly ambitious in the face of record high oil prices and a global slowdown.

Truckers voted to extend their strike after talks on higher pay and demands for cheaper diesel broke down. The strike threatens to hit freight transport in export-dependent South Korea, and is one of many by truckers around the world against soaring fuel prices.

The Korea International Trade Association estimated the damage from the strike could be 128 billion won ($123.8 million) a day, based on a study of historical data, local media reported.

Unionized truckers represent only a small portion of drivers in the country but play a key role in moving goods in and out of ports. About 14,000 walked off the job on Friday after talks on higher pay and demands for cheaper diesel broke down.

MILITARY TRUCKS MOBILISED

Containers moved through ports and inland terminals on Friday but port authorities said volume was showing a sharp slowdown.

The government mobilized military trucks and scheduled more cargo rail services to transport goods, but such moves have sparked clashes in previous truckers’ strikes.

The Transport Ministry said it was immediately revoking striking truckers’ annual fuel subsidy payments of about 15 million won ($14,500), and will begin providing police escorts to non-striking vehicles.

Transport Minister Chung Jong-hwan called on businesses to consider raising payments to truckers to help end the strike.

The militant umbrella Korean Confederation of Trade Unions is planning to hold a strike vote on Friday and its member unions, including the Hyundai Motor union, are expected to hold their own strike votes in coming days.

The truckers’ strike had minimal overall impact on financial markets but added to the downward pressure on shipping stocks.

The rallies against started over a deal Lee struck in April to allow more U.S. beef imports. Widespread concern over mad cow disease quickly turned the issue into a lightning rod for a broad range of grievances against Lee’s government.

On Friday night, former combat soldiers and right-wing groups angered by the mass rallies took to the street of central Seoul to try to halt the protest and faced off with liberal group members in kerbside shouting and shoving matches.

U.S lawmakers have said they would not ratify a separate bilateral trade pact unless Seoul opened its market to U.S. beef.

South Korea’s Minister for Trade Kim Jong-hoon left for Washington on Friday for talks with U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab to rework the beef deal, seeking a voluntary agreement to limit trade in material South Koreans see as risky.

Schwab was quoted by a spokeswoman on Thursday as saying she would be looking for a “mutually agreeable path forward”.

Additional reporting by Park Jung-youn and Yoo Choonsik; Editing by Jon Herskovitz and Jeremy Laurence

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