South Korean police question first doctor over walkouts

By AFP   March 5, 2024 | 08:34 pm PT
South Korean police question first doctor over walkouts
South Korean doctors march to the Presidential Office to protest against the government's medical policy in Seoul, South Korea, Feb. 25, 2024. Photo by Reuters
South Korean police on Wednesday called in a doctor for questioning -- the first to be summoned in connection with a mass walkout by junior medics, which has plunged hospitals into chaos.

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 called the work stoppage illegal and after a Feb. 29 deadline passed with no mass return of medics, Seoul said it was moving to suspend the medical licences of striking doctors, and called for investigations into organizers.

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 Wednesday.

"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.

"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.

Despite the warning of license 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 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.

The mass work stoppage has taken a toll on hospitals, with crucial treatments and surgeries canceled, 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 canceled since last week, according to the health ministry.

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