After 309 days atop a crane -- sitting out snowstorms, a typhoon and heatwaves -- labour activist Kim Jin-suk came down to earth on Thursday, claiming victory against one of South Korea's shipbuilders.

Kim's case became a cause celebre in Asia's fourth biggest economy amid growing worker anger over wage levels and the government's business-friendly policies.

Her soapbox was a cabin aboard crane No. 85 at Busan shipyard. Thousands of supporters travelled to the port in the south of the country to attend a series of rallies near the crane which also drew applause from the main opposition party.

Kim said via Twitter that her protest had not only been successful in winning back employees' jobs, but also underlined ideals that I have been working for half my life.

Dressed in blue overalls, and wearing a baseball cap, she waved to a few dozen supporters and bowed, before climbing down a 35-metre ladder to end her sit-in.

It's the first time in 309 days that I've seen a human this close, Yonhap news agency quoted Kim as saying to surrounding labour union officials who welcomed her down.

I knew I would be able to come down alive ... You guys saved me.

Police escorted her to hospital for a checkup, and said they would arrest her for business obstruction and other charges.

She ended her sit-in after unionised workers at Hanjin Heavy Industries & Construction unanimously approved a deal their leaders reached with management to end their 11-month-long dispute triggered by the shipmaker's massive layoffs last year.

The deal calls for reinstating 94 laid-off employees within one year and other benefits.

WINTER CHILL

The former welder slept in the crane's cab that had no shower and used a bucket as a toilet. She celebrated her 51st birthday aboard the crane in July.

Earlier this week, she tweeted: Many people are worried about winter here. But cold is just part of what (I) have to endure. No worries and good night.

Her protest attracted a strong national following, particularly during the warmer summer months, when up as many as 7,000 people joined a series of rallies at the port, travelling to Busan in a caravan of so-called Hope Buses.

The Busan demonstrations morphed into general anti-government rallies amid rising discontent over a growing divide between rich and poor, rising youth unemployment and inflation. South Korea elects a new parliament and president next year.

(Additional reporting by Iktae Park; Editing by Ed Lane)