South Korean president criticizes doctors' walkout, calls it a health threat

  • President Yoon Suk Yeol has criticized the ongoing strikes by young doctors, calling them illegal collective action endangering public health.
  • The government has decided to suspend the licenses of around 9,000 medical interns and residents involved in the strikes.
  • The strikes, which lasted more than two weeks, were triggered by the government's plan to increase admissions to medical schools.

South Korea's president vowed Wednesday not to tolerate prolonged walkouts by thousands of young doctors, calling them “illegal collective action” that threatens public health and undermines the country's governing systems.

President Yoon Suk Yeol's government was in the process of suspending the licenses of around 9,000 medical interns and residents following their joint walkouts that impacted hospitals' ability to provide care.

Junior doctors have been on strike for more than two weeks to protest government efforts to admit thousands of new students to medical schools in the coming years. Officials say the enrollment plan is key to preparing for the nation's rapidly aging population, but doctors say schools can't handle such a sharp, sharp increase in students, and that it would ultimately harm the quality of South Korea's medical services.

SEOUL PLEDGES TO PROSECUTE LEADERS OF STRIKE INVOLVING THOUSANDS OF SOUTH KOREAN DOCTORS

“The collective action of doctors is an act that betrays their responsibilities and shakes the foundations of liberalism and constitutionalism,” Yoon said in a televised speech at the start of a Cabinet meeting. “Illegal action that violates the people’s right to life will never be tolerated.”

Yoon Suk Yeol

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol speaks during a cabinet meeting at the government complex on March 6, 2024 in Sejong, South Korea. Prolonged walkouts by young doctors will not be tolerated, South Korea's president said Wednesday, calling them “illegal collective action” that threatens public health and undermines the country's governing systems. (Jin Sung-chul/Yonhap via AP)

Yoon's government has repeatedly urged striking doctors to return to work or face charges and license suspensions of at least three months. But most of the strikers did not respect the deadline set by the government of February 29 for their return.

Under South Korean medical law, doctors who defy orders to return to work can be punished with up to three years in prison or a fine of around $22,500, as well as fines. a suspension of up to one year of their medical license. Those who are sentenced to prison terms may be deprived of their license.

As of Monday, the Health Ministry began administrative steps to suspend the strikers' licenses: sending officials to hospitals to formally confirm their absences and sending notifications to the strikers regarding their planned suspensions. The department was required to give them the opportunity to respond before their suspension took effect.

Observers say the ministry will likely end up suspending strike leaders, not the entire group of 9,000 doctors who walked out — a daunting administrative task that would likely take weeks or more.

Vice Health Minister Park Min-soo told reporters on Tuesday that the government planned to file charges against the strike leaders so that they would also be investigated by police. But he added that authorities had not yet determined when they would do so and against whom.

The striking residents and interns represent only about 6.5% of the country's 140,000 doctors. But in some large hospitals, they make up around 30-40% of the total doctors and have played the role of assisting senior doctors during surgeries and taking care of hospitalized patients during their training. Their walkouts subsequently caused the cancellation of hundreds of surgeries and other treatments at their hospitals and burdened South Korea's medical service.

The public is largely opposed to doctors' strikes, and surveys show Yoon's approval ratings are rising following his push for the medical school application plan. A poll showed that a majority of South Koreans supported the proposed listing.

Health officials said care for urgent and critical patients remains largely stable, with public hospitals extending working hours and military hospitals opening emergency rooms to the public. But if senior doctors join the walkouts, South Korea's medical service would suffer a major blow.

The Korean Medical Association, which represents doctors in South Korea, has expressed support for the young doctors on strike, but has not yet decided whether or not it will participate in the walkouts.

Police were investigating allegations that five senior KMA officials instigated and encouraged the departures of the junior doctors, and said they summoned one of them on Wednesday. Speaking to reporters before his interrogation, Joo Sooho, spokesperson for the KMA emergency committee, denied the allegations.

SOUTH KOREAN GOVERNMENT SUSPENDS MEDICAL LICENSES OF THOUSANDS OF DOCTORS ON STRIKE

Currently, the cap is 3,058 medical students per year. The government wants to welcome 2,000 more medical students starting in 2025, citing South Korea's doctor-to-population ratio, which it says is one of the lowest in the developed world.

But doctors say the plan cannot address a chronic shortage of doctors in rural areas and in essential but low-paying specialties, because newly recruited students would also like to work in the capital region and in high-paying fields such as plastic surgery and dermatology.

The striking young doctors accused the government of ignoring their harsh working conditions – more than 80 hours a week at close to minimum wage. But post-residency doctors are among the highest paid professionals in South Korea.

Some critics say the strikers simply fear that increased competition from more doctors will lead to lower revenues in the future.

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