Thousands of Striking Doctors in South Korea Defy Government’s Return-to-Work Deadline

Bianca Echa

Thousands of Striking Doctors in South Korea Defy Government’s Return-to-Work Deadline

Tensions continue to soar between thousands of striking South Korean doctors and the government, as a vast majority of the protesting junior residents have refused to go back to work on Friday despite threats of prosecution for their ongoing collective action and promises of immunity from penalty if they had quit their walkout by now.

Only 294 doctors out of some 9,000 striking doctors have returned to work as of Thursday night since the strike began on Feb. 20, Vice Health Minister Park Min-soo told reporters. Authorities had given an ultimatum earlier in the week, promising striking doctors that they would not be held accountable if they returned to work by Thursday evening but that the government would begin to take legal action against remaining strikers starting Friday.

The doctors are protesting a government plan to address the country’s longstanding doctor shortage by increasing the annual quota for medical students from 3,058 to 5,058 beginning in 2025. Critics say the protesting doctors are worried that the quota expansion will hurt their competitive pay, while doctors argue the plan will do little to address the poor working conditions in fields where the personnel shortages are most pressing. 

As of Wednesday evening, around 10,000 residents—80% of all junior doctors—had tendered their resignations as part of the protest. Around 9,000 were on strike—a slight decrease from the previous day, per health authorities, who also noted that the number of striking doctors had decreased two days in a row.

Across 100 teaching hospitals in the country, there were 32 hospitals where more than one person has returned to work, and 10 hospitals where more than 10 have returned, Park said on Thursday, adding there are also hospitals where up to 66 doctors have resumed work. 

Authorities have issued over 9,400 back-to-work orders to striking doctors, but many have avoided accepting the text message orders by simply turning off their phones and changing their phone numbers. In response, officials are now visiting the homes of trainee doctors to personally deliver the orders. The Ministry of Health has also posted back-to-work orders for about a dozen trainee doctors on the ministry website, local media reported. These steps would allow authorities to subsequently file criminal complaints with those who refuse to comply with the back-to-work orders. 

Defying a back-to-work order can be punished by up to three years in prison, a 30 million won ($22,000) fine, or a minimum three-month medical license suspension.

The government has stood firm on its quota expansion plan, which remains broadly popular among the general public, with the health ministry lodging its first criminal complaint against five alleged organizers of the strike on Tuesday. On Friday, police raided several offices at the Korean Medical Association and Seoul Medical Association, which have been accused of violating medical law for their alleged role in instigating the strike.

At the same time, authorities also appear to be trying to assuage concerns among doctors about the quota expansion plan, with the health ministry announcing on Thursday that the government would add up to 1,000 medical professors at key national hospitals by 2027 in response to worries raised by doctors that increasing the intake of medical students would affect the quality of medical care and education. Meanwhile, Park said that officials had invited 94 representatives of the striking doctors to a meeting on Thursday, but only a handful of doctors showed up. 

Hospitals across the country are being stretched to their limits, with some patients having their treatments postponed amid a shortage of doctors. The heads of hospitals have written emails begging doctors to return. “Your sincerity is well-delivered,” Kim Young-tae, the president of Seoul National University wrote on Wednesday. “A handful of patients suffering from high-risk diseases and incurable illnesses await you. Now, please come back.”

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