Even before he has officially made it into the presidential Blue House, the South Korean President-elect, Kim Dae-jung, has clocked up a series of vital economic and political reform agreements that only a few weeks ago would have seemed impossible. Each will bring terrible economic pain and demand patience and self-sacrifice from a nation already reeling from a devalued currency, shattered stock and property markets and a humiliating bailout from the International Monetary Fund. Yet together they form a package which should hugely accelerate the country's painful return to growth and prosperity. Technically, the agreements are not Mr Kim's to claim. They were reached between the big, family-run conglomerates, the chaebol, the Government of lame-duck incumbent President Kim Young-sam and the labour unions. But it was very much the dynamism of the president-in-waiting which forced these bitterest of antagonists to sort out their differences. But while the president-elect will, rightly, take the credit for banging heads together and forcing the pace of negotiations, nobody pretends it would have been possible, if reforms of this seriousness had not been demanded by the International Monetary Fund as conditions of the rescue package agreed in December. Nor has any of the parties come out of the negotiations without painful concessions. Who would have dreamt last year, when daily demonstrations and nationwide strikes forced the Government to backtrack on legislation relaxing employment protection, that the labour unions would agree to Friday's far more radical deal to allow mass layoffs? Who would have imagined, even as the first big bankruptcies began to shake the Korean economy to its foundations last year, that the rapidly diversifying and expanding chaebol would, so readily, agree to begin streamlining their operations and contemplate a radical restructuring. The labour unions, undoubtedly, have swallowed the bitterest pill. In return for politically sensitive but relatively minor agreements to allow the formation of teachers' unions and a trade union in all but name for public employees, they have virtually given the employers a free hand in laying off workers. Despite the restrictions written into the agreement, such as a 60-day notice period for layoffs, and a non-binding commitment to try to rehire fired workers before taking on new staff, hundreds of thousands of redundancies are expected in the coming months. Bankruptcies, restructuring, mergers and acquisitions are expected to hit jobs hardest in finance and heavy industry. Steelmaking, cars and shipbuilding are likely to be the big employment black-spots. By the end of the year, joblessness should double from December's 3.1 per cent to leave over one million people out of work. By Western standards, that is still quite healthy for an economy in recession. But it is almost certainly only the beginning of a much wider restructuring, which will ensure those promises of rehiring workers are worth little more than the paper they are written on. But, business has not had everything its own way. A 60-day notice period is still hard for many hard-hit companies to swallow. More important for the long-term development of the economy, the unions have won a multi-billion dollar unemployment fund to be financed by government spending cuts and direct contributions from employers as well as workers on contributions. In a country where government has traditionally sided - some would say conspired - with big business, and regarded any kind of welfare system with horror, that is a major political about-face. What is more, none of this would have been possible, if the chaebol, urged on by Park Tae-joon, Kim Dae-jung's right-hand man, and former chief of the successful Pohang Iron and Steel, had not themselves agreed to sweeping reforms of the way they do business. Key among the changes, and a major condition of the IMF package, is the agreement to allow foreign investors to make hostile takeover bids. But other reforms include a requirement to produce consolidated financial accounts, new powers for minority shareholders and moves to allow banks to conduct debt-for-equity swaps which will reduce the control of the owners in return for keeping the companies solvent. All these should help force companies to slim down and concentrate on core businesses, while improving corporate governance and transparency. To a laid-off worker, it will be cold comfort to know his redundancy is all in the cause of a more prosperous Korea. But that is a logic that even the unions have been ready to accept. It is a logic that will sustain the beginning, at least, of Mr Kim's presidency, when he takes office on February 25. It is a logic that other troubled economies in the region would do well to take on board. And, with luck and a lot of pain, it will be a logic that will help Korea become the first of the sick men of Asia to recover.