South Korea orders striking doctors back to work

World Wednesday 21/February/2024 15:52 PM
By: DW
South Korea orders striking doctors back to work

Seoul: The South Korean government on Wednesday ordered thousands of striking trainee doctors to go back to their jobs.

The trainee doctors are angered by South Korea's plans to sharply increase the number of medical students in the country.

The government says the reforms are necessary because of a shortage of qualified physicians. But the protesters say better work conditions and compensation are needed before increasing the number of students.

"A collective action holding the lives and safety of the people cannot be justifed for whatever reason," Interior and Safety Minister Lee Sang-min said during a media briefing.

South Korean Second Vice Health Minister Park Min-soo said over 8,800 junior doctors, or 71% of the trainee workforce, had stepped down amid anger over the reforms. These resignations have not been approved, but about 7,810 of the trainees have instead just walked off their jobs entirely.

"The basic calling of medical professionals is to protect the health and lives of the people, and any group action that threatens that cannot be justified," Min-soo said.  

The walkouts have burdened the South Korean medical system, postponing surgeries and suspending medical treatments. In order to combat this, the government has allowed military medical facilities to temporarily open to the public.

The Korean Health Ministry said Wednesday that it has received dozens of complaints amid the strike.  

If trainee doctors do not come back to work, they could be hit with fines amounting to 30 million Korean won ($22,465; €20,805) or up to three years behind bars.

The trainee doctors believe the back-to-work order is a form of intimidation.   

"Despite working more than 80 hours a week and receiving compensation at minimum wage level, trainee doctors have been neglected by the government until now," the Korean Intern Resident Association said. The group said it was unjust that the government is treating trainee doctors as "criminals."

One association involved in the walkouts also suggested that the medical student reforms are politically motivated ahead of legislative elections.

Although trainees are unhappy with government plans to increase the number of medical students, a Gallup Korea poll last week found 76% of South Koreans are in favor of the changes.