South Korean Riot Police Storm Auto Factory Taken Over by Fired Workers

South Korean riot police entered Ssangyong Motor's only factory Monday where hundreds of fired workers, some armed with slingshots, have been occupying part of the facility for two months.

Production at Ssangyong Motor Co., South Korea's fifth-largest automaker, has been paralyzed since May 22 due to a strike by workers opposed to major job cuts under a restructuring plan. The company has been in court-approved bankruptcy protection since February.

Riot police were being deployed "to carry out legal obligations in accordance with the court's request," Cho Hyun-oh, the top police official in Gyeonggi Province, where the factory is located, told a news conference. Cho also said it was a "crime prevention measure aimed at preventing bloody violence between labor and management."

Lee Won-muk, a Ssangyong spokesman, said that 200 to 300 riot police were inside the factory grounds and more outside the main gate, though there had been no major clashes with the workers so far.

Yonhap news agency reported that about 3,000 police were deployed in total inside and outside the factory.

Some of the fired workers had earlier Monday used sling shots to shoot nuts and bolts when a court official asked them to stop the protest, Lee said. Clouds of black smoke from tires set ablaze by workers billowed across a road leading into the plant.

The factory is located in Pyeongtaek, about 45 miles (70 kilometers) south of Seoul.

Ssangyong has been carrying out a major restructuring under the bankruptcy protection to shed 2,646 workers, or 36 percent of its work force. Some 1,670 have left the company voluntarily though nearly 1,000 opposed the move. Some were later fired, Lee said.

About 500 have been occupying the paint plant at the factory, said Lee, the company spokesman.

Ssangyong, which mostly manufactures light SUVs and a luxury sedan, the Chairman, has suffered from plummeting sales this year and last year.

The company sold 13,020 vehicles during the first six months of the year, down 73.9 percent from the same period in 2008, according to Yonhap.

Ssangyong sold a total of 92,665 vehicles in 2008, down almost 30 percent from the year before. The majority were exported to Europe, China and other countries. Ssangyong does not export to the United States.

Yonhap quoted South Korea's minister for Knowledge Economy Lee Youn-ho as telling lawmakers Monday that Ssangyong was at a major turning point.

"The possibility of Ssangyong Motor's survival is seen as very low," Lee said. "If production stoppage continues, the insolvency of Ssangyong Motor will be unavoidable."

Ssangyong is majority-owned by Shanghai Automotive Industry Corp., one of China's largest vehicle manufacturers, though it lost management control amid the bankruptcy protection process.

Ssangyong filed for bankruptcy protection in January amid falling sales and mounting red ink.

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