KOREA - Police detained more than 120 labour activists in the first raid of a powerful labour organisation in central Seoul on Sunday to arrest union leaders wanted for leading an "illegal" railway strike.
Violent clashes erupted at 9:35 a.m. as some 500 policemen entered the headquarters of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, where the strike leaders were believed to be hiding.
Police broke windows on doors and fired tear gas to break up protesters who barricaded themselves and sprayed fire extinguishers.
This is the first time the police forced their way into the office of the KCTU, one of the two largest umbrella labour organisations.
Police brought more than 120 protesters to nearby police stations.
The railway union, with the backing of the KCTU, is calling for the cancellation of what they call a "privatization plot" by the Korea Railroad Corp. About 6,500 unionized workers of the state-run railway operator have staged a strike since Dec. 9 against the government's plan to set up an affiliate for a new bullet train service.
On the 14th day of the walkout, police declared an all-out war, deployed some 4,000 officers on the scene and fired tear gas into the building.
During the process, police removed Unified Progressive Party Reps. Kim Sun-dong, Lee Sang-kyu and Oh Byung-yun from the scene.
"We can no longer neglect the "privatization" claim that is unsubstantial and causing social unrest and economic malaise," Land, Infrastructure and Transport Minister Suh Seoung-hwan said in an announcement.
Suh stressed that establishing an affiliate under the new bullet train service is a measure to boost efficiency of the operations and to overcome the operator's prolonged debt crisis, saying the union's privatization claim was fictitious.
"The court has issued warrants for leading figures in the railway strike, and no organisation or individual can be an exemption," Security and Public Administration Minister Yoo Jeong-bok said.
Meanwhile, the main opposition democratic party called for the government to stop entering the union's building by force and to solve the problem peacefully.
"The repression is not the end of the strike but the beginning of a bigger disaster," Democratic Party floor spokesman Park Soo-hyun said, adding that the responsibility of all problems that may result from the suppression lies with the Park Geun-hye administration.
The ruling Saenuri Party said the move is just a law enforcement matter for union leaders who disobeyed the summons of the court.
"The railway union should stop taking the citizens hostage for their strike, and come to the discussion table," Saenuri spokesman Yoo Il-ho said.
The privatization plot of KORAIL's new service departing from Suseo in Gangnam, Seoul, has emerged as the biggest domestic challenge for President Park Geun-hye's fledgling administration.
Despite the government's insistence that the new bullet train service would not be privatized, the union and protesters have firmly kept its stance on the spinoff project's cancellation.
The strike, the longest in Korean history, has already disrupted KTX, ITX, subway and freight train operations. The country's KTX and freight service operations are currently down to 70 and 30 per cent, respectively, according to KORAIL.
So far, four offices of the railway union across the nation were seized, and warrants for the detainment of two union leaders have been issued.
On Sunday, one of the two members was issued with an arrest warrant and the other one was questioned to determine the warrant's validity.