June 25, 2024

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — As South Korea’s government made a last plea for junior doctors to end a walkout hours before a Thursday deadline, many were expected to defy orders to return to work, risking suspensions of medical licenses and prosecution.

Thousands of medical interns and residents have been on strike for about 10 days to protest the government’s push to boost medical school enrollments. Government officials have warned that strikers would face legal repercussions if they don’t return to their hospitals by Thursday.

As of Wednesday night, about 9,076 of the country’s 13,000 medical interns and residents were confirmed to have left their hospitals after submitting resignations, according to the Health Ministry. It said that 294 strikers had returned to work.

There was no word on any others going back to their jobs as of 6 p.m. (0900 GMT).

Members of The Korean Public Service and Transport Workers' Union stage a rally to demand expansion of public hospitals and medical students at the Seoul National University Hospital in Seoul, South Korea, Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2024. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

Observers say many strikers are likely to defy the deadline, continuing the labor boycott for weeks or months. The government is expected to begin formal steps toward penalties on Monday, as Friday is a national holiday.

“We’ve said that we won’t hold them responsible for leaving their worksites if they return by today,” Vice Health Minister Park Min-soo told a briefing. “Doctors are there to serve patients, and those patients are anxiously waiting for you. This isn’t the way to protest against the government.”

Later Thursday, Park met some striking doctors at a Seoul building but the contents of their discussion weren’t immediately made public. Park earlier said officials had invited 94 representatives of the strikers to the meeting, using a mass text message. It wasn’t known how many doctors took part in the meeting.

A woman stands in front of an emergency center at Seoul National University Hospital in Seoul, South Korea, Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024. South Korea’s government made a last appeal to junior doctors to end a walkout, with hours left to go before the Thursday deadline on its threats to suspend medical licenses and prosecute the strikers. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

A woman stands in front of an emergency center at Seoul National University Hospital in Seoul, South Korea, Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

Ryu Ok Hada, one of the striking doctors, told reporters that he wouldn’t attend the meeting. He accused the government of treating the striking junior doctors “like criminals and inflicting humiliations on them.”

Starting March 4, the government will notify doctors who miss the deadline that it plans to suspend their licenses, and will give them opportunities to respond, senior Health Ministry official Kim Chung-hwan told the same briefing.

Under South Korean law, the government can order doctors back to work if it sees grave risks to public health. Those who refuse to abide by such orders can have their medical licenses suspended for up to one year, and also face up to three years in prison or a 30 million won (roughly $22,500) fine. Those who receive prison sentences would be stripped of their medical licenses.

Some observers say authorities will probably punish only leaders of the strike to avoid further straining hospital operations.

People arrive at Seoul National University Hospital in Seoul, South Korea, Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024. South Korea’s government made a last appeal to junior doctors to end a walkout, with hours left to go before the Thursday deadline on its threats to suspend medical licenses and prosecute the strikers. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

People arrive at Seoul National University Hospital in Seoul, South Korea, Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

At the center of the dispute is a government plan to admit 2,000 more applicants to medical schools starting next year, a two thirds increase from the current 3,058. The government says it aims to add up to 10,000 new doctors by 2035 to cope with the country’s fast-aging population. Officials say South Korea’s doctor-to-population ratio is one of the lowest among industrialized countries.

But many doctors reject the plan, arguing that universities aren’t ready to provide quality education to that many new students. They also say the government plan would also fail to address chronic shortage of doctors in essential but low-paying specialties like pediatrics and emergency departments.

But their critics say the striking junior doctors simply worry about expected lower income because of the sharply increased number of fellow doctors. The government’s plan is broadly popular with the South Korean public, according to a poll.

“Doctors must cure sick people. If they all leave, who’s going to treat them? Everyone would die,” Kim Young Ja, an 89-year-old housewife, said near a Seoul hospital.

The country’s 13,000 trainee doctors represent a small fraction of South Korea’s 140,000 doctors, but they account for about 30%-40% of the total doctors at some major hospitals and perform many vital functions to support senior medical staff.

The doctors’ walkouts have caused cancellations or delays to several hundred surgeries and other medical treatments at their hospitals, according to the Health Ministry. The ministry says the country’s handling of emergency and critical patients remains largely stable, as public medical institutions extended their working hours and military hospitals opened their emergency rooms to the public.

But experts say if senior doctors join the trainee doctors’ strikes, South Korea’s medical service would suffer serious damage. The Korea Medical Association, which represents the country’s 140,000 doctors, has said it supports the trainee doctors, but hasn’t yet decided whether to join the walkouts.

A 60-year-old patient, who was diagnosed with breast cancer six weeks ago, said she hopes for an early end to the walkouts so that her treatment would go ahead smoothly.

“My cancer won’t worsen only when I get cancer treatments at the right time. So I hope the trainee doctors would return to work as soon as possible, normalizing hospital operations,” said the woman, who wished to be only identified as her surname, Yu, citing privacy concerns.

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Associated Press journalists Ahn Young-joon, Yong Ho Kim and Yong Jun Chang contributed to this report.


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