South Korean police question first doctor over walkouts

South Korean police question first doctor over walkouts
South Korean police question first doctor over walkouts

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Nevin Al Sukari - Sana'a - This picture taken on March 3, 2024 shows Joo Soo-ho (C), a spokesperson of the Korean Medical Association (KMA), speaking to reporters during a mass rally of doctors opposing the government's plans to sharply increase medical school admissions, in Seoul. — AFP pic

SEOUL, March 6 — South Korean police today called in a doctor for questioning—the first to be summoned in connection with a mass walkout by junior medics—as the government approved the use of millions of dollars to ease service disruptions.

Thousands of trainee doctors quit and stopped working some two weeks ago to protest against government plans to increase medical school admissions to help deal with Korea’s fast-ageing society.

The government has repeatedly urged medics to return to work but after a February 29 deadline passed with no change, Seoul said it was moving to suspend the medical licences of striking doctors, and called for investigations into organisers.

The doctors’ walkouts are “illegal collective action that violates people’s rights to life”, President Yoon Suk Yeol said at a cabinet meeting today, adding that the government would use some 128.5 billion won (RM460 million) of state reserves to minimise service disruptions.

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The Korean Medical Association, which has been on the forefront of the protest, claiming the reforms will erode service quality, has seen its offices raided, with top members sued over medical law violations and slapped with travel bans.

The KMA’s Joo Soo-ho has been accused of “aiding and abetting” the protests and appeared at the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency for questioning today.

“I came here with ease because literally I have nothing to hide, nor reasons to hide,” the 65-year-old surgeon told reporters before he went inside.

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“The charge of instigation can’t be established because we have never instigated” the junior medics to quit en masse, he said.

He said the doctors’ protest was “non-violent” and urged the government to renounce its “stubbornness” and negotiate.

The Wednesday questioning is the first police probe into any medical personnel in connection with the ongoing walkouts by the young doctors.

‘Respond sternly’

President Yoon said the new funds would be earmarked to ensure “stable management of emergency treatments”.

The finance ministry said the money could be used to pay staff to work overtime, to cover the costs of dispatching military doctors to civilian hospitals, or for hiring temporary medical staff.

“We have no choice but to respond sternly to illegal collective action that takes people’s lives hostage in accordance with laws and principles,” Yoon said.

“As I have stressed many times, medical reform is a task that cannot be delayed anymore,” he said.

The government is pushing to admit 2,000 more students to medical schools annually from next year to address what it calls one of the lowest doctor-to-population ratios among developed nations.

Despite the warning of licence suspension, striking junior doctors have not returned to work on any significant scale, government data shows.

As of Monday nearly 9,000 trainee doctors remained on walkouts, official figures show, a number that has not significantly changed over the last two weeks.

The mass work stoppage has taken a toll on hospitals, with crucial treatments and surgeries cancelled, prompting the government to raise its public health alert to the highest level.

Around half of the surgeries scheduled at some major hospitals have been cancelled since last week, according to the health ministry. — AFP

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