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[Newsmaker] Return of ex-minister angers unions

June 17, 2013 - 20:23 By Korea Herald
Kim Dae-hwan was one of the most credited scholars among unionists and activists in the 1980s when they fought the dictatorial government and exploitive capitalists.

Two decades later, the progressive labor economics expert turned into the trade unions’ public enemy No. 1. While serving as labor minister from 2004-06, he pushed for an ambitious social compromise aiming both to boost growth and protect labor rights. 
Kim Dae-hwan. (Yonhap News)

He demanded labor concessions on greater market flexibility and an improved bargaining process, infuriating unionists so much that they called him a traitor to the working class and forced him to resign.

President Park Geun-hye on Friday appointed the 63-year-old professor at Inha University to head the Economic and Social Development Commission, a tripartite body on labor policy, at a time the conservative government is embarking on drastic reforms that are expected face fierce labor resistance.

Kim will play a key role in reaching her goal of raising the nation’s employment rate to 70 percent, for which a compromise between labor, the government and business is indispensable.

His priorities are bridging the three parties to create quality part-time jobs, implement a wage peak system, and draw up a bigger reform program to cope with a fast aging population.

The presidential office hailed his firm principles, knowledge and experience. But labor unions are lukewarm about Kim’s return.

“The man who blocked social dialogue has been appointed as the head of a (tripartite body that works) as a communication channel,” said a spokesman of the Federation of Korean Trade Unions, one of the nation’s two major labor umbrella organizations.

In 2005, the group walked away from the tripartite committee in protest of Kim’s tough measures against labor unions. It returned to the panel only after he stepped down.

It was during one of the worst periods in Korea’s labor relations that he was at the helm of the ministry.

But union leaders still brand him the worst “anti-labor minister” and Kim also remains one of the fiercest critics of politicized and hard-line unions.

Questions remain as to whether or not the foes thus far will work together to steer labor relations to peace and compromise at this critical moment.

By Cho Chung-un (