Yoon Urges Korean Doctors to Return, Leaves Room for Talks

(Bloomberg) -- South Korea’s President Yoon Suk Yeol said he won’t back down on a plan to increase the number of medical school seats, while leaving room for talks in a weekslong dispute that has prompted the walkout of almost all the nation’s trainee doctors.

Most Read from Bloomberg

In an hour-long speech to the nation, Yoon said Monday the government’s plan to add 2,000 more slots at medical schools a year was a minimum requirement to address the country’s doctor shortage, largely sticking to his policy on the need to boost the numbers.

Still, the government is willing to discuss the plan if doctors come up with a reasonable alternative proposal, he said, keeping the door open to negotiations.

“If the medical sector wants to claim that the size of increase should be reduced, they should make a unified proposal based on concrete, scientific evidence, not through collective action,” Yoon said. “If they come up with more valid, reasonable solution, we can discuss it for sure.”

Yoon’s remarks come with almost all of South Korea’s 13,000 trainee doctors still refusing to work in protest over the plan after more than a month. The trainees play key roles in emergency care and surgeries.

While voters appeared to back Yoon’s stance on the doctors at first, the speech may have been aimed at shoring up support for the government’s position ahead of a parliamentary election and avoiding the appearance of a lack of communication on the issue.

“It looks like the presidential office has come to the conclusion they will lose even more votes if they back-track from here,” said Lee Ju-yul, a professor at the Department of Health Administration at Namseoul University. “They appear to be trying to stick with the current plan while leaving the door open for talks after the election.”

Read More: South Korean Doctors Seek to Avoid Same Fate as Lawyers

The government has said the increase in university slots from the current 3,058 is the first in nearly three decades and needed to elevate the quality of medical services for the country’s rapidly aging population. The doctors contend the plan won’t fix fundamental problems such as a shortage of physicians in fields seen as lower paying and a concentration of doctors in urban areas.

“The government can’t help but respond according to law and principle if they stage illegal group acts, holding people’s lives as hostage,” Yoon said. “Please return to your medical posts where patients are waiting for you.”

The Korean Medical Association, which represents about 15,000 doctors, said Yoon’s address was “disappointing.”

Some observers have said the ongoing walkout is more about protecting the earning power of physicians rather than improving the quality of health care. Doctors in South Korea have some of the highest pay in the developed world compared to average wages, according to data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

“The message seems to be that Yoon won’t compromise on the number,” said Jeong Hyoung-sun, a professor at the Department of Health Administration at Yonsei University. “Yoon is telling doctors to come up with scientific grounds to revise the number, but the government has been saying all along that their 2,000 number is based on thorough research and calculation.”

Yoon said the quota increase won’t lead to a decrease in doctors’ income, citing rising demand for medical services.

“If the reason for opposing the quota increase is concerns over a drop in the expected income, that will never be the case,” Yoon said. “Overall income for doctors won’t decrease compared to now.”

South Korea is preparing for a parliamentary election on April 10, a crucial vote for the president as his conservative party seeks to push forward its pro-business policies and maintain a tough line on organized labor.

The latest poll shows Yoon’s People Power Party leading in support ahead of the vote, but the margin may not be large enough to wrest control of parliament from the progressive bloc dominating the body.

Polling shows support for Yoon’s plan but the numbers have slipped in recent weeks among voters who want to see an end to the labor action.

“The public is generally in support of the increase, but their anxiety has been growing. It’s the question of ‘What if I get hurt or sick right now?’ Voters with those concerns can’t favor the government,” said Shin Yul, a political science professor at Myongji University.

--With assistance from Jon Herskovitz.

(Updates with reaction from Korean Medical Association in paragraph 10.)

Most Read from Bloomberg Businessweek

©2024 Bloomberg L.P.