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Friday, April 19, 2024

Thousands of doctors in South Korea stage anti-government protests

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Participants at a rally opposed to the government's plan to expand the country's medical school admissions quota by 2,000 spots next year crowd a street near Yeouido Park in western Seoul on Sunday afternoon. [YONHAP]
Participants at a rally opposed to the government’s plan to expand the country’s medical school admissions quota by 2,000 spots next year crowd a street near Yeouido Park in western Seoul on Sunday afternoon. [YONHAP]

Police banned four current leaders of the country’s largest medical lobbying group from leaving the country on Sunday amid a deepening crisis over the ongoing doctors’ strike that has crippled hospitals across the country.

The travel ban announcement came just before thousands rallied in Yeouido, western Seoul, to protest the government’s plan to increase the medical school admissions quota by 2,000 spots next year.

Cho Ji-ho, chief of the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency, told reporters gathered to cover the rally that police had decided to impose a travel ban on four current leaders of the Korean Medical Association’s (KMA) emergency committee after investigators had raided office buildings being used by the committee and the Seoul Medical Association on Friday.

The four people who have been prohibited from leaving the country are Kim Taek-woo, chief of the emergency committee of the KMA; Joo Soo-ho, head of the committee’s public relations; Park Myung-ha, president of the Seoul Medical Association; and Lim Hyun-taek, president of the Korean Pediatric Association.

All four are among the five KMA committee members already under investigation by police following a complaint filed by the Health Ministry alleging that the group’s leaders triggered mass resignations by junior doctors by expressing its support for collective action, providing legal assistance to striking doctors and encouraging defiance of the government’s back-to-work order.

Former KMA chairman Roh Hwan-kyu is the only one of the five who has not been prohibited from leaving the country.

Cho also said police planned to investigate allegations that some doctors illegally pressured pharmaceutical company salespersons to participate in Sunday’s rally.

However, the warnings appeared to do little to discourage doctors from rallying in opposition to the government’s plan.

Speaking before doctors gathered for the rally, Kim Taek-woo warned that “the government will face resistance from the public if it turns a blind eye to doctors’ voices and tries to repress them.”

In his speech, Kim accused the government of bulldozing its plan through the medical sector without consulting practitioners and called on the government to talk with striking doctors to resolve the ongoing walkout.

Kim also claimed that “no junior doctors or members of the KMA’s emergency committee ever encouraged or desired the crippling of medical services” and blamed the government for pressuring doctors to end the strike without offering compromises.

Throngs of doctors opposed to the government’s planned medical recruitment expansion packed a street next to Yeouido Park later in the afternoon, waving flags and placards that opposed an increase in the medical school quota “without agreement from medical sectors” and argued that a recruitment hike “without preparation risks compromising medical education.”

The KMA boasts a membership of 140,000 doctors. The organizers of Sunday’s protest said approximately 20,000 people participated in the rally.

The government has argued more doctors are needed in rural areas and essential medical fields, such as high-risk surgeries, pediatrics, obstetrics and emergency medicine.

While doctors claim such shortages are due to too many trainees choosing lucrative fields such as cosmetic surgery and dermatology over low-paying, high-risk jobs in essential sectors, critics argue that doctors also oppose increased recruitment for fear of higher competition and lower pay.

Korea has approximately 13,000 medical interns and residents, most working and training at 100 general hospitals. Junior doctors comprise 30 to 40 percent of total doctors at the country’s top hospitals, where they assist senior doctors during surgeries and deal with inpatients.

Almost 10,000 junior doctors have submitted resignations in opposition to the medical recruitment expansion plan, of which over 9,000 have walked off their jobs at general hospitals across the country.

The walkout has forced major hospitals nationwide to reduce operations and limit admissions to emergency rooms and intensive care units.

Last week, the Health Ministry issued an ultimatum to doctors on strike to return by Thursday to avoid legal consequences, such as license suspensions and criminal prosecution, but to little avail.

Interior Minister Lee Sang-min said Sunday that the government would exercise “maximum leniency” toward junior doctors who return to work by the end of the weekend but that authorities would have “no choice but to act sternly according to the law” otherwise.

BY MICHAEL LEE [lee.junhyuk@joongang.co.kr]