South Korean government, striking doctors face off as thousands continue walkout

A representative of the Korea Medical Association speaks with international media on Tuesday in Seoul. Doctors called the hospital walkout a "government-induced crisis." Photo by Thomas Maresca/UPI
1 of 2 | A representative of the Korea Medical Association speaks with international media on Tuesday in Seoul. Doctors called the hospital walkout a "government-induced crisis." Photo by Thomas Maresca/UPI

SEOUL, March 5 (UPI) -- Thousands of South Korean trainee doctors remained on strike Tuesday as the government began taking steps to revoke their licenses and warned of possible police action against leaders of the walkout.

The trainee doctors began their walkout two weeks ago in protest over a government plan that would admit 2,000 new students to the country's medical school enrollment quota next year.


They defied a government deadline to return to work Thursday and are subject to suspension of their medical licenses for up to a year. The doctors could also face three years in prison or a fine of more than $22,000 for non-compliance.

Second Vice Health Minister Park Min-soo said Tuesday the government has formally identified more than 7,000 of the striking doctors of the roughly 9,000 who have remained off the job since the walkout began.


"The government plans to enforce license suspension procedures as soon as violations of the business start order are confirmed," Park said at a press briefing.

He also suggested criminal charges could be in store.

"We are thinking of filing a police complaint against the instigators, but we have not decided when we will do it," Park said.

Most of the trainee doctors work at the country's 100 teaching hospitals and play a vital role in assisting with surgeries and emergency services. The Health Ministry has said the walkout is causing disruptions in patient care and delays or cancellations of surgeries.

The government says the additional medical school quota is necessary to address shortages of doctors in essential medical fields and in remote areas.

Doctors, however, argue that increasing admissions would diminish the quality of medical education. Many also say the government should focus on improving crushing workloads for trainees and raising salaries in lower-paid fields such as pediatrics and emergency care.

Senior doctors and striking residents condemned the government plan as insufficient and politically motivated at a Tuesday press briefing for international media in downtown Seoul.

The trainee doctors are being used as "cheap labor" to prop up the underfunded national healthcare system, Chung Jin-haeng, professor of pathology at Seoul National University Bundang Hospital, said.


"The tertiary hospitals should not be so reliant on these low-paid residents that they are on the verge of collapsing," she said. "Those who have resigned are not essential medical healthcare workers, they are students and trainees. It just goes to show how distorted the medical field is.

"This is a government-induced crisis," she added.

Park In-Sook, a spokeswoman for the Korea Medical Association trade union, said the government's national health insurance caps fees for essential medical services at far below cost, placing enormous financial pressure on hospitals and doctors in those fields.

"The root is the low fee for essential services," she said. "The government is trying to artificially control and suppress costs for non-reimbursed services."

She also said the government's quota proposal and hardline stance against the doctors is a populist move by the ruling People Power Party and President Yoon Suk Yeol to win public support ahead of April's parliamentary elections.

"This is happening to gain votes in the election next month," she said. "The clue can be found in the timing."

The doctors have failed so far to garner much public support. A Gallup Korea poll released last month found 76% of respondents are in favor of expanding the medical school quota, with only 16% opposing the plan.


A third-year resident, who requested anonymity to speak to reporters, said that trainees who want to work in essential fields often find themselves compelled to move into more lucrative specialties because of low wages and inadequate resources.

"The basic problem is the system, not the number of doctors," a third-year resident who walked off the job said. "Our present medical system almost actually guides young doctors to choose specialties like dermatology or cosmetic surgery over essential services."

She added that she hopes the government will meet with the trainee doctors to discuss the quota plan but is willing to face the consequences of the walkout.

"I worry about the future and I worry about the suspension of my license," she said. But "if legal measures are taken against us, I can take up another profession. I'll just give up the last four or five years of my life.

"I like to eat out," she joked. "Maybe I can set up a cafe where people can come for brunch."

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