Published: 17:40, April 5, 2024 | Updated: 17:39, April 5, 2024
Yoon cites walkout of medics as ‘grave threat’
By Yang Han in Hong Kong

South Korean medical groups welcome government offer of more talks on drastic plan

Union representatives from training hospitals hold a news conference on April 1 in Seoul, calling for the early restoration of diagnosis and treatment to the public. (PHOTO / AP)

After citing walk-out protests of junior doctors and medical professors as “an illegal collective action” that poses “a grave threat to our society” on April 1, South Korea’s president again stressed more talks with protesters on his plan to drastically increase medical school admissions.

About 12,000 medical interns and residents in South Korea have been on strike for six weeks, causing hundreds of canceled surgeries and other treatments at university hospitals. In support of their action, many senior doctors at their teaching schools have also submitted resignations though they have not stopped treating patients.

Officials say they want to raise the yearly medical school cap by 2,000 from the current 3,058 to train more doctors to deal with the country’s rapidly aging population.

Doctors counter that schools cannot handle such an abrupt increase in students and that it would eventually hurt the country’s medical services. But critics say doctors, one of the best-paid professions in South Korea, are simply worried that the supply of more doctors would result in lower future incomes.

In a nationally televised address, President Yoon Suk-yeol said that adding 2,000 medical students is the minimum increase needed to address a shortage of physicians in rural areas, the military, and essential services, including pediatrics and emergency departments.

Yoon said South Korea’s doctor-to-patient ratio — 2.1 physicians per 1,000 people — is far below the average of 3.7 in the developed world.

“Increasing the number of doctors is a state project that we can’t further delay,” Yoon said.

Yoon urged the striking doctors to return to work, saying they have a responsibility to protect people’s lives in line with the local medical law.

He also said the government remains open to talks if doctors come up with a unified proposal that adequately explains their calls for a much smaller increase in the medical school enrollment quota.

“I can’t tolerate an attempt to carry through their thoughts by force without due logic and grounds,” Yoon said. “The illegal collective action by some doctors has become a grave threat to our society.”

Interior Minister Lee Sang-min said the government is open to the possibility of changing its policy to increase the medical school admission quota if a better option can be proposed. 

On April 3, the Korean Medical Association (KMA), which represents doctors in South Korea, said it welcomed Yoon’s offer to meet with junior doctors but added that doubts remain over the government’s willingness to adjust its increase in medical school places. 

A medical professor in South Korea filed an appeal on April 3, after the Seoul Administrative Court dismissed the request by the Medical Professors Association of Korea to suspend the government’s implementation of the quota increase. 

The Korean Intern Resident Association (KIRA), a major group representing junior doctors, said the 2,000 figure was both ‘scientifically groundless’ and politically motivated to garner votes in the upcoming parliamentary election on April 10.

Park Dan, head of KIRA’s emergency committee, had a meeting with Yoon at the presidential office on April 4 to reiterate the junior doctors’ stance that the plan should be fully withdrawn. 

Xinhua and agencies contributed to the report.