South Korean authorities raid Korean Medical Association amidst doctor strikes and public health crisis

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1st March 2024 – (Seoul) South Korean police conducted a raid on the offices of the Korean Medical Association (KMA) on Friday, 1st March. The move comes amidst a healthcare system strained by a walkout that has seen nearly 10,000 trainee doctors, approximately 80% of the trainee workforce, abandon their posts.

The striking medics are protesting against the government’s proposal to significantly increase medical school admissions as a measure to address physician shortages and the challenges of an ageing population. The government had issued a stark ultimatum with a deadline of February 29, demanding medical workers return to their duties or face legal repercussions, including the possibility of arrest and suspension of medical licenses.

As the deadline passed, the Ministry of Health announced that a mere 565 doctors had returned to work, a figure dwarfed by the scale of the walkout. The resulting disruption has compelled authorities to elevate the public health alert to its highest echelons.

The government’s action against the strike, which is restricted under South Korean law, included a directive for police to investigate those associated with the stoppage. Confirmation of the raid on the KMA by Seoul police underlines the increasing tension between healthcare professionals and state officials.

In a public notice, the health ministry disclosed back-to-work orders for 13 trainee doctors, revealing partial identification details and emphasising the consequences of continued non-compliance, including disciplinary measures and criminal charges.

Health Minister Cho Kyoo-hong expressed appreciation for those who had resumed their duties, acknowledging their return to patient care as a “wise decision.”

In contrast, the KMA expressed outrage at the government’s raid, emphasizing their determination to continue the protest. KMA spokesman Joo Soo-ho highlighted the medical community’s resolve to be acknowledged as “free citizens” within the country, extending apologies for the inconvenience caused to the public throughout the dispute.

As the healthcare standoff continues, President Yoon Suk Yeol’s administration remains steadfast in its plans to admit an additional 2,000 medical students starting next year, aiming to remedy one of the lowest doctor-to-population ratios among advanced economies. The reforms, while supported by up to 75% of the public according to polls, have been criticised by the medical fraternity, who argue it could dilute the quality of medical services and education, while merely seeking to protect their income and stature.

Junior doctors counter that the reliance on trainees in the healthcare system is both excessive and unjust. President Yoon, who has maintained a firm stance against the strikes, has seen a slight increase in approval ratings, which some analysts attribute to his hardline approach.

With legislative elections looming in April and with the goal of regaining a parliamentary majority, Yoon’s party is under pressure, but analysts predict a swift compromise is unlikely.

The KMA, accusing the government of employing “intimidation tactics” to coerce doctors back to work, has likened the state’s actions to those of a “totalitarian state.” A rally organised by the medical association is scheduled for Sunday in Seoul, with reports suggesting an anticipated turnout of around 25,000 participants.