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[From the Scene] Day of Rage: Doctors resist pressure to bend

Days after government raids on homes, offices of KMA officials, medics walk picket line to urge reversal of planned student quota hike

March 3, 2024 - 15:56 By Park Jun-hee
A group of doctors from across the nation gather at Yeouido Hangang Park, western Seoul, Sunday to protest against the government’s decision to drastically raise the medical school enrollment quota. (Park Jun-hee/The Korea Herald)

Expressing frustration and anger at the South Korean government’s recent decision to increase the annual medical school quota by 2,000 starting in 2025, tens of thousands of doctors, interns, residents and medical students walked the picket line Sunday afternoon to urge a reversal of the planned hike.

Chants of “Let’s fight together, let’s win together” reverberated through the crowd, reflecting determination even as the government has issued repeated warnings that trainee doctors could face legal penalties if they refuse return-to-work orders.

The demonstration marked the first large-scale rally in Seoul to include all members of the Korean Medical Association, the country’s largest doctors’ group, with some 140,000 members and students from across the country in attendance.

It was also the first rally of its kind after the government filed a criminal complaint against five former and incumbent KMA executives, as well as the first following junior doctors’ refusal to end their collective strike on the last day of the government’s ultimatum on Thursday.

Both sides show little sign of letting up, despite deepening medical disruptions and patient groups’ relentless appeals.

On Sunday afternoon, thousands of people from every corner of the country, including Jeju Island, amassed in Yeouido Hangang Park in western Seoul, expressing their rage and unity as the government continued to up the ante against the medical circle’s collective actions.

Some 40,000 people were thought to have participated in the rally, according to the KMA, while police estimated the figure to be between 8,500 and 9,000.

Firmly clinging to their representative flags, doctors from 16 medical associations from 16 cities and provinces went to the front line to unleash pent-up fury, encouraging their peers to chant along.

“The strike that began with trainee doctors and medical students is not only aimed at safeguarding the future health care environment, but also stands for doctors’ struggle to protect public health,” Kim Taek-woo, who heads the emergency committee of the KMA, said in opening the demonstration in a speech.

“If the government shuts its eyes to doctors’ efforts and, instead, tries to suppress them, (the government) will face strong public resistance,” Kim warned, as participants waved signs and cheered.

Lee Jong-keun, acting president of the KMA, took the microphone to express doctors’ strong determination to not retreat even a single step.

“The medical community has no place to back off anymore. We will not stand by and watch the undemocratic attitude of the government, and we will not accept the current situation.”

After the two speeches, participants shouted, “Unjustified medical oppression. Doctors are also citizens,” referring to the government’s recent decision to suspend trainee doctors’ licenses and press criminal charges against those who refused to return to work by Thursday last week.

The slogan also alluded to police raids on the homes and offices of KMA officials on Friday. The KMA officials are suspected of encouraging trainee doctors’ collective resignations and abetting the strike.

A group of doctors from across the nation gather at Yeouido Hangang Park, western Seoul, Sunday to protest against the government’s decision to drastically raise the medical school enrollment quota. (Park Jun-hee/The Korea Herald)

In the hope that their voices would be heard, protestors shouted in unison, holding red and blue cutouts emblazoned with the words: “Rash expansion of medical schools leads to the downfall of quality health care.”

The rally, however, was at times interrupted by individual counterprotesters, who chimed in at the event to lambast doctors for putting their grievances above patients’ health and care.

Despite a lack of public support, the country’s major doctors’ lobby group got the backing of the World Medical Association, which released a statement Friday that said it “stands firm in support of the KMA amid a government-induced crisis.”

“The right to collective action is universal, and guidelines are in place to ensure patient safety remains paramount during any collective action taken by physicians. … Physicians, including medical students and young doctors, are peacefully practicing their rights within the boundaries of democratic law and constitution,” it said.

Dr. Lujain Al-Qodmani, president of the WMA, was quoted as saying that she “strongly urges the Korean government to reconsider its actions” and “cease the forceful measures imposed on the medical community.”

Joo Soo-ho, the head of the emergency committee’s public relations council under the KMA, told The Korea Herald that doctors won’t “yield to any pressure from the government.”

“To not give in to the pressure is (the KMA’s) principle. No matter what, doctors will continue to raise our voices until what we believe is right is accepted. We genuinely want the people to objectively judge doctors’ rationale regarding the planned hike in medical school enrollment quota,” he said.

Meanwhile, Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency Commissioner Cho Ji-ho told reporters on the same day that police would firmly respond to the protest to prevent serious public disorder, and they would continue their investigation into five striking doctors.