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[Editorial] Pulling strings at the hospital

Hong Nam-ki urged to explain why his son got special treatment despite bed shortage

Dec. 10, 2021 - 05:30 By Korea Herald

Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Hong Nam-ki faces public criticism for allegedly seeking special treatment from the country’s top hospital when his son needed medical care. This is at a time when around 1,000 patients with severe COVID-19 symptoms are struggling to find a bed.

A recent report by the state-run KBS TV said Hong’s son visited the emergency room at Seoul National University Hospital on Nov. 24 with pain in his leg. Medical staff told him it was not urgent and asked him to go home. But he got a phone call from the hospital on his way home and suddenly returned to check into a VIP room. This is strange, since the hospital’s infectious disease department cannot afford to admit non-COVID-19 patients.

According to KBS reports based on tips from members of the hospital staff, it turned out later that the hospital’s chief, Dr. Kim Yon-su, secured a bed for Hong’s son after a phone call with the deputy prime minister.

As the report sparked anger and disbelief from many citizens, the Finance Ministry belatedly released a short statement on behalf of the minister. “Deputy Prime Minister Hong, who was concerned about his son’s symptoms, talked with his close friend, Kim Yon-su, president of Seoul National University Hospital, and his son was hospitalized in a VIP room,” the message said.

This preferential treatment for Hong’s son looks like a typical case of a high-ranking official abusing his position.

Strangely enough, Hong has remained silent about the matter, which is generating suspicion even within the ruling Democratic Party of Korea.

Under the country’s anti-graft law, popularly known as the Kim Young-ran Act, public officials are barred from seeking favors through improper solicitations and exchanges of gifts. It is not clear whether Hong’s act is a violation of the law, but it is crystal clear that it was improper for him to make a personal telephone call to the president of the country’s top hospital to discuss his son’s medical condition.

The claim that Hong talked with Kim about his son’s condition because the two were close friends is fanning the flames of the public’s fury. Despite their close relationship, they should have known better than to talk about treatment for Hong’s son given their high positions in the government and at the state-run hospital devoted to battling the coronavirus. They know that their decisions and behavior are watched closely.

The timing couldn’t be worse. The majority of Korean parents who do not have lofty connections have to take care of their sick sons and daughters at home, as the government has expanded home treatment for COVID-19 after failing to deal with a record surge in cases.

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum sought to justify Hong’s telephone call with the hospital chief by saying, “All parents, when their kids are sick enough to require hospitalization, may well feel frustrated.” Kim’s remark understandably invited a slew of negative reactions.

Not all parents with sick children can get a hospital bed by calling up the head doctor at a hospital. Regardless of social status, it is normal for parents to discuss their children’s health with the doctors treating them -- not to phone up a hospital president to pull strings.

Moreover, many people, including politicians, say Hong was clearly trying to cut in line, a bad example set by a top politician within the Moon Jae-in administration, which is now urging the public to opt for home treatment for COVID-19.

Hong, who has stubbornly remained silent, should step forward and explain what really happened, and, if necessary, issue an apology -- something the public expects from a responsible public official.