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South Korean activist returns to earth after almost a year atop crane

November 10, 2011 |  4:32 am

South Korean labor activist Kim Jin-sukREPORTING FROM SEOUL -– South Korean labor activist Kim Jin-suk returned to earth Thursday, ending her 309-day protest in a metallic cell 15 stories above ground.

Since January, the 51-year-old activist has waged a solitary protest on Crane No. 85 to condemn layoffs at a major South Korean shipping company in the southern port city of Busan.

Kim’s plight -– going without running water, having supporters hoist up her meals each day inside a bucket -– focused attention on what she claimed are the excesses of the country's corporate culture, in this instance the 400 job cuts announced by the bosses at Hanjin Heavy Industries & Construction last year.

After the 11-month deadlock in talks, the company reached a tentative agreement with labor activists Wednesday to reinstate 94 laid-off workers within one year.

Union leaders approved the measure Thursday without a vote, and Kim descended around 3 p.m.

Enduring nearly a year inside a prison tower she described as "smaller than the foyer in an apartment where people take their shoes off" -- about 6 feet by 10 feet -- Kim was relieved to be free.

Her hair noticeably more gray than when she stole atop the crane last winter, she held her hands high toward the sky and made her landing wearing a smile. The families of fired workers on whose behalf Kim kept her vigil were in tears as they handed her flowers.

“I knew that I’d be coming down, alive,” said Kim in her speech after descending. “I’d never forsake the faith in all of you and the members of the union. You all saved me.”

Throughout her protest, her only outside contact came via Twitter and a solar-powered cellphone, which she used to talk with reporters and fellow activists.

She tweeted until the last minute she came down.

South Korean citizens who cheered her throughout her struggle shared their excitement and congratulated her on Twitter and Internet communities.

"At first I didn't understand what she was fighting for, and thought that she was causing a ruckus," tweeted one supporter. "But as she continued her struggle I learned that she was fighting for unfair discharging of the laborers. I'm so glad that she finally came down safely."

Kim immediately left for a nearby hospital. Police say she is still subject to criminal charges of trespassing and disturbing business.

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-- Jung-yoon Choi 

Photo: Labor activist Kim Jin-suk celebrates after coming down from a crane at Busan shipyard. Credit: Oh Su-hee / Yonhap

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