South Korean Government Halts Punitive Actions Against Doctor Strike, Softens Stance on Medical School Quotas

SEOUL — Amid an ongoing conflict with major doctors' associations, the South Korean government has decided to pause its plan to enforce punitive measures against trainee doctors participating in a protracted walkout and has modified its proposal to increase medical school admission quotas. This change comes as an attempt to break the deadlock that has persisted for months.

According to Yonhap News Agency, during a media briefing last week, Second Vice Health Minister Park Min-soo announced that local universities would be granted the autonomy to decide their medical school quotas, allowing an increase by 50 to 100 percent for the 2025 academic year. This adjustment aims to alleviate tensions amid a standoff that began in February when over 90 percent of the country's 13,000 trainee doctors walked out of general hospitals in protest against the government's original plan to significantly raise admission quotas.

Additionally, the government has delayed implementing its "flexible disposition" policy, which would suspend the licenses of doctors who have been inactive for an extended period. There has also been no action taken against medical school professors who resigned in solidarity with their students. This softer approach marks a significant shift from the government's initial proposal to increase medical school admissions by 2,000 students starting in 2025—a plan designed to address potential shortages of medical services in rural areas due to the country’s low birthrate and rapid aging.

Despite these concessions, doctor's organizations continue to press for a complete overhaul of the proposed medical reforms. Lim Hyun-taek, the newly appointed head of the Korean Medical Association (KMA) and a notable hardliner, has vocally criticized the government's plans, calling for a thorough reevaluation. Conflict also persists within the medical community itself, as Park Dan, leader of a trainee doctors' group, expressed concerns over attempts to initiate dialogue with the government without broad consent, signaling a divide among the protesting doctors.

The ongoing strike has placed considerable strain on hospitals, prompting medical professors—who have been filling in for the absent trainee doctors—to take a day off last week to express their fatigue, with some hospitals even suspending surgeries and outpatient treatments for a day.

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