World

Korean doctors face suspensions as Seoul moves to prosecute strike leaders

The government ordered striking doctors to return to work by February 29, citing a threat to public health, but most have defied the threats.

Doctors stage a rally against the government’s medical policy in Seoul, South Korea (Ahn Young-joon/AP)
South Korea Doctors Protest Doctors stage a rally against the government’s medical policy in Seoul, South Korea (Ahn Young-joon/AP) (Ahn Young-joon/AP)

Thousands of striking junior doctors in South Korea are facing proceedings to suspend their medical licenses as authorities push for police investigations into leaders of the walkouts that have disrupted hospital operations.

Nearly 9,000 of South Korea’s 13,000 medical interns and residents have been refusing to work for the past two weeks to protest a government plan to enroll thousands more students in the country’s medical schools in coming years.

The government ordered them to return to work by February 29, citing a threat to public health, but most have defied the threats of license suspensions and prosecutions.

Doctors stage a rally against the government’s medical policy in Seoul, South Korea (Ahn Young-joon/AP)
South Korea Doctors Protest Q&A Doctors stage a rally against the government’s medical policy in Seoul, South Korea (Ahn Young-joon/AP) (Ahn Young-joon/AP)

Officials say South Korea must add more doctors to deal with a fast-aging population and plan to raise yearly medical school enrolment by 2,000 from the current 3,058, starting next year.

But many doctors say universities aren’t ready to deal with that abrupt increase in the number of students and that the country’s overall medical service would eventually be hurt.

On Monday, the Health Ministry sent officials to hospitals to confirm the absence of the striking doctors, in order to begin administrative steps to suspend their licenses.

So far, the government has formally confirmed the absence of more than 7,000 strikers.

On Tuesday, officials continued on-site inspections of hospitals and began sending notices to some strikers about license suspension proceedings, according to the Health Ministry.

Vice health minister Park Min-soo said licenses would be suspended for at least three months.

He told a briefing: “For those who lead the walkouts, we are thinking we’ll file complaints with police.

“But I tell you that we haven’t determined exactly when we would do so and against whom.”

Under South Korea’s medical law, doctors who defy orders to resume work can be punished with three years in prison or a 30 million-won fine, as well as a up to one year’s suspension of their medical licenses. Those who receive prison sentences can lose their licenses.

Observers say the government will likely end up punishing only strike leaders, not all of the thousands of striking doctors.

They say it would take a few months to complete the administrative steps to suspend the licenses of all the 9,000 striking doctors.

Doctors are to be given opportunities to respond before suspensions take effect.

One of the striking junior doctors told The Associated Press that he and others have no intentions of returning to work.

“We had only worked to save patients but the government has made us criminals in a moment,” said the doctor, who wished to be only identified by his family name Jeong because of fears that publicity would earn him stronger punishment.

South Korean police said they are investigating five senior members of the Korea Medical Association, after the Health Ministry filed complaints against them for allegedly inciting and abetting the junior doctors’ walkouts.