South Korean Government Accuses Medical Professors of Blackmail

Blackmailing Accusation

On March 17th, South Korean Vice Health Minister Park Min-soo leveled accusations of blackmail at medical professors of educational institutions who plan to submit resignations to protest the rising enrollment quota in medical schools. The National Medical Center (NMC) Chief, Joo Yeong-Soo, also disapproved of the decision of medical professors from sixteen different medical schools to resign en masse on March 25 during a press conference, claiming that defending doctors on strike won’t resolve the issue. 

Why the Increase?

The decision to increase the number of enrollments from 3,058, in place since 2006, to 5,058 is part of the government’s plan to increase the number of doctors in the country. Furthermore, the South Korean government said that the quota increase is “non-negotiable.” The reasoning is based on the projected shortage of doctors by 2035, with predictions showing South Korea will be 15,000 doctors short. 

The aging population is also among the government’s reasons, saying more care is needed for the on-average older population. New doctors are required to replace those who retire. Bringing on more staff would also potentially fill sectors that are currently experiencing a lack of personnel, such as pediatrics and emergency services. 

Additional financial investment in healthcare is also part of the plan to remedy the situation and further develop practices in more rural areas to improve the quality of care within those regions.  

Medical staff walk in a general hospital. Source: Yonhap News

Park rejected claims that increasing insurance payments to doctors, notably those professions that currently lack staffing, would increase insurance premiums should the decision to add to the quota be scrapped. 

He elaborated more on the matter on YTN TV, saying: “Even professors have declared they would resign collectively unless their demand is met.” Park then said, “This is huge blackmail against people… We have to break the cycle of collective action in the medical sector.”

What do Medical Staff Have to Say?

The government’s decision to increase quotas has proven unpopular with medical students, residents, junior and senior doctors, private practitioners, and others, leading to thousands not attending medical school classes, walking off the job, and submitting their resignations on February 19th. 

Should the number of enrollments increase, the main argument is that it will decrease the overall level of expertise, experience, and care provided to patients. Additionally, it could lead to a surplus of doctors and other medical staff, meaning a possibility of lower pay, decreased benefits and legal rights, and compromising the quality of education provided to those who enroll. 

Workers have also expressed their current complaints about 80-100-hour workweeks, low pay, and a poor work-life balance. Doctors have expressed that the current amount of staff is already satisfactory enough, and the government should respond to other complaints to improve workplace conditions, such as by increasing pay for underpaid staff.

Protests in central Seoul organized by Korea Medical Association. Source: Yonhap News

Rising costs to the patients are also a big reason these protests started. More doctors will also lead to more competition in an already tough field. 

The South Korean government has asked the striking doctors to return to work despite the controversy to not leave patients uncared for. However, the government also declared the strike as a medical crisis and allowed for the people to use military hospitals and other medical facilities. Despite this, the protests allegedly show little to no signs of slowing down at all. Private practices have debated on showing support for the striking staff, such as reducing their hours of operations. 

Analysis 

The government insisted the quota is non-negotiable and is part of its plan to fix the potential issues of a shortage of doctors by 2035, increased health insurance premiums, and to address its aging population due to the low birth rates South Korea currently faces.

Given that the government has issued “back to work” orders, as well as threatening to revoke licenses, and even threaten to prosecute those who do not return to work are reasons they are not likely to find a compromise that satisfies both sides.

Should a compromise be reached, it could mean the quota is reduced, and some of the problems highlighted by workers, such as long hours, improved. However, the protests do not show signs of dying down currently, and with the government not willing to negotiate, it is likely the protests and opposition will continue for the time being.

Evan Berridge
Evan Berridge
Aspiring writer and analyst of mostly Indo-Pacific affairs, began in January 2024.

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