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Mar 6, 2024, 12:24pm EST
East Asia
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Semafor Signals

South Korea’s health care crisis escalates as doctors prolong walkout

Insights from Korea JoongAng Daily, The Korea Times, Yonhap News Agency

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REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji
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The News

Thousands of striking junior doctors in South Korea face losing their medical licenses after failing to return to work in an escalating protest over government proposals and the future of the country’s health care system.

Around 70% of medical interns and residents have walked out since Feb. 20, opposing Seoul’s plan to enroll more medical students to increase the country’s doctor headcount. They argue the proposals fail to address the real issues facing medics including overwork and low wages.

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Authorities have threatened to prosecute walkout leaders and kickstarted the license suspension process for strikers. Doctors who defy orders to return to work could face up to three years in prison or a 30 million-won ($22,500) fine as well as a one-year license suspension for endangering public health.

South Korea has one of the lowest doctor-to-patient ratios among developed countries and the walkouts have led to many surgeries and medical treatments being postponed.

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SIGNALS

Semafor Signals: Global insights on today's biggest stories.

Doctors say more medical students won’t solve their problems

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Sources:  
The Chosun Daily, The New York Times, Associated Press

Doctors say that medical school quotas will fail to address chronic staff shortages and that universities are not equipped to provide a quality education. Medical residents in lower-paying fields like emergency medicine and pediatrics said that no recruits were willing to join their teams due to the workload, and that for trainee doctors the situation is similar to “the Industrial Revolution when young boys and girls were forced to work in factories.” One resident, who works over 100-hour weeks in Seoul, told The New York Times: “I thought my own life might be cut short in my effort to save others.” With a rise in enrollees and no revised education plans, “the quality of medical education will plunge endlessly, resulting in an unsafe, low-quality medical service and eventually a collapse,” one Korea Medical Association leader told the Associated Press.

The public supports the government

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Sources:  
Bloomberg, Korea JoongAng Daily, The Chosun Daily

The government shows no signs of backing down. “Withdrawing the plan would make the doctors think the government is bluffing in the future,” South Korea’s Health and Welfare Minister Cho Kyoo-hong told Bloomberg. He said expanding admission slots, the first increase in three decades, was a “core” medical reform, adding, “we do not at all consider holding out a cut as a bargaining chip.” Seoul appears to have public backing: While eight out of 10 doctors are against the quota measures, almost 80% of the public support it. The media also seems to be shifting tides: “The biggest victims are the critically ill who cannot get surgery in time,” wrote an opinion writer in Korea JoongAng Daily. Meanwhile, The Choson Daily published a piece questioning medical residents’ “sense of calling and duty as a doctor.”

The strike could help South Korea’s ruling party

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Sources:  
Stratfor, The Korea Times, The Korea Herald, Yonhap News Agency

“Growing frustration with an ongoing doctors’ strike could bode well for President Yoon Suk-yeol’s conservative party in April legislative elections,” and “embolden his government to curb the power of unions,” noted U.S. strategic intelligence company Stratfor. A politics professor at Incheon’s Inha University told The Korea Times that public support for the medical school policy would bring Yoon praise for his “steadfast and resolute attitude.” The president’s popularity declined last year, but recently surpassed 40% for the first time, Yonhap News Agency reported.

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