April 24, 2024

Some 9,000 doctors walked off the job two weeks ago over government plans to increase medical school admissions.

South Korea has said it will suspend the licences of trainee doctors who have ignored an ultimatum to end a strike over government plans to increase medical school admissions.

About 9,000 junior doctors walked out on February 20, leading to the cancellation of some operations and treatments as well as hampering the operation of hospitals’ emergency units.

On Monday, Health Minister Cho Kyoo-hong said the authorities would visit hospitals to find out whether the doctors had returned to work and “take action according to the law and principle without exception”.

Speaking in a televised briefing, he said those who had not returned “may experience serious problems in their personal career path”.

The doctors taking strike action are a fraction of South Korea’s 140,000 doctors. But they account for as many as 40 percent of the total doctors at some major hospitals.

Thousands took to the streets of Seoul on Sunday at a mass rally organised by the Korean Medical Association (KMA), which represents private practitioners, defying a February 29 government deadline for them to return to work or face legal action, including possible arrest.

The doctors say the government should first address pay and working conditions before trying to increase the number of physicians.

“The government is pushing the reforms unilaterally and that, the doctors cannot accept under any circumstances”, Kim Taek-woo of the Korea Medical Association told the crowd of protesters, who wore black masks.

Under South Korean law, doctors are restricted from taking strike action.

“The government is very aware of the reasons why all doctors are opposing the increase in the medical school admissions but are exploiting policies to turn doctors into slaves forever.”

A crowd of doctors on the streets of Seoul. They are carrying placards showing their opposition to plans to increase the number of places at medical schools
Thousads of doctors have joined the strike against a government plan to make more places available at medical schools [Jung Yeon-je/AFP]

The government says the move to increase the number of students admitted to medical schools by 2,000 from the 2025 academic year is necessary because of the rapidly ageing population and the country’s low number of doctors to patients. At 2.6 doctors per 1,000 people, South Korea’s rate is one of the lowest in the developed world.

The plan to boost medical school admissions is popular with the public, with about 76 percent of respondents in favour, regardless of political affiliation, according to a recent Gallup Korea poll.

President Yoon Suk-yeol has taken a hard line on the strike and has seen his approval ratings climb as the standoff drags on.

With legislative elections in April and Yoon’s party looking to win back a parliamentary majority, the government is unlikely to compromise quickly, analysts said.

But doctors have also pledged not to back down, saying the government’s plan did not address the sector’s real problems.

“We have nowhere to retreat any more. We will not just sit idly by the government acting undemocratic,” Lee Jeong-geun, the interim head of the KMA, said at Sunday’s protest.

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