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Hyundai Motor plants in extra weekend run, S.Korea truckers' strike continues

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By Byungwook Kim and Heekyong Yang

ULSAN, South Korea (Reuters) -A huge Hyundai Motor Co factory complex added weekend production on Saturday, despite a nationwide strike by truckers that has hit ports and other South Korean industrial giants, including steelmaker POSCO.

On day five of the strike, some 100 unionised truckers, about a tenth of Friday's show of force, assembled at the main gate of the Hyundai factory in the southern city of Ulsan, protesting soaring fuel prices and demanding higher freight rates to cover costs.

About 800 striking union members were rallying at the gates of a nearby major petrochemical complex in Ulsan. They had cut the number of vehicles to one-tenth of normal levels on Friday, according to union officials.

South Korea is a major supplier of semiconductors, smartphones, autos, batteries and electronics goods. The strike has deepened uncertainty over global supply chains already disrupted by China's strict COVID-19 curbs and Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

The Transport Ministry said on Saturday it planned to meet with union representatives to continue talks aimed at ending the strike and called on union members to return to work immediately.

At the country's main seaport in Busan, tension was rising as union members hurled insults at non-union drivers entering the main gate and at the police on hand to ensure vehicles were passing through the gate, according to a Reuters witness.

Busan handles about 80% of the country's container traffic which was down to a third of normal levels on Friday, a government official said.

Some of the hundreds of strikers threw rocks and water bottles at moving vehicles and a union leader was egging on members to rise up even at the risk of arrests.

"Do you want to check out the police station?" he bellowed into a megaphone, to a boisterous "Yes!" from members.

"What has (President) Yoon done for us?" he said referring to conservative President Yoon Suk-yeol who took office a month ago after a campaign promoting a pro-business economic agenda.

Faced with one of his first major economic challenges, Yoon has taken what he calls a neutral stance, saying the government should not intervene in a matter between truckers and businesses that contract with them.

The truckers' union's Busan chapter chief Song Cheon-seok told Reuters members are ready to up the ante to push their demands.

Song reiterated union policy it will not stop non-union trucks from passing. It is targeting mostly vehicles transporting chips, auto parts, petrochemical products and fresh foods, he said.

About 7,350 truckers, a third of the 22,000 members of the Cargo Truckers Solidarity union, were expected to be on strike on Saturday, the Transport Ministry said. It estimates about 6% of the country's 420,000 truckers are unionised.

The union contends a larger number of truckers were on strike and many non-union truckers are also choosing not to work.

A Hyundai Motor union official said production at the Ulsan plants picked up slightly on Friday and the factory was operating at about 60% capacity overall, slightly higher than the 50% to 60% level on Thursday.

Hyundai declined to specify the status of its operations or delivery of finished cars.

"There are some disruptions to our production due to the truckers strike, and we hope production would be normalised as soon as possible," a Hyundai spokesperson said.

The union official said Saturday's factory run had not been anticipated because of worsening parts supply issues but the company was pushing ahead, likely to meet growing backorders.

Hyundai employees have started driving finished cars out of the factory complex and parking those outside as they could not be delivered to customers because of the strike, he said.

(Reporting by Byungwook Kim in Ulsan and Heekyong Yang in Seoul; Writing by Jack Kim; Editing by William Mallard & Shri Navaratnam)