The Korea Herald


Yoon says 'open to talks' but doctors express disappointment

Support for president, ruling party on downtrend ahead of April 10 election

By Son Ji-hyoung, Park Jun-hee

Published : April 1, 2024 - 15:39

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Passerbys watch President Yoon Suk Yeol make a televised public statement on the government's medical reform efforts, at Seoul Station on Monday. (Yonhap) Passerbys watch President Yoon Suk Yeol make a televised public statement on the government's medical reform efforts, at Seoul Station on Monday. (Yonhap)

President Yoon Suk Yeol said Monday that he is open to talks with doctors if they can suggest a more plausible option than his administration's plan of adding 2,000 more medical students a year, seeking a breakthrough in a prolonged medical standoff that has apparently been affecting the ruling party's election campaign.

Pointing to doctors' failure to refute his administration's plan to increase the school quota by 2,000 to 5,058 per year starting in 2025, Yoon said in a televised public address that medical circles should avoid collective action.

Instead, Yoon urged doctors to come to the negotiating table with their own proposal to adjust the medical school enrollment quota, on which the medical circles reached a consensus between themselves.

"If medical circles want to claim that the degree of the medical school enrollment quota should be smaller, they should not take collective action, and should instead come up with their own suggestion with scientifically proven evidence," Yoon said.

"If they bring a more rational and reasonable proposal to the negotiating table (over the medical school enrollment quota hike), we can talk about it. The government is open to suggestions in devising new policy."

The presidential office in Seoul said it was open to renegotiating the number. Korea, with about 50 million population, is home to around 115,000 physicians.

However, Yoon reiterated the country's need to increase the medical school quota immediately. The presidential office revealed Monday that its current hike plan was based on projections from the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs, the Korea Development Institute and Seoul National University.

South Korea's rapidly aging society, coupled with the fast-paced growth of spending on medical services, will boost demand for medical services nationwide, according to Yoon. The president also brought up the issue of aging doctors and the diminishing work hours of doctors here.

Han Dong-hoon, the interim leader of the ruling People Power Party, said during his visit to Busan for the election campaign that negotiators "should not fixate on numbers" concerning the quota hike, calling on the government to take a softer stance given that this is a matter of citizens' health.

Yoon also ruled out the possibility of a gradual hike in the medical school enrollment quota, saying implementing the quota hike evenly each year is necessary to ensure fairness and predictability from aspiring students' point of view.

The defiant medical community gave Yoon the cold shoulder despite the government's hints at a renegotiation.

Lim Hyun-taek, the newly appointed president of the Korean Medical Association, said in an interview with Yonhap News Agency that he was at a loss for words regarding the speech. Lim leads the largest doctors' lobbying group and has proposed to decrease the number of doctors in line with the ongoing population decline.

"I don't want to comment (on the speech) so much to the point where I don't even want to say why," Lim said.

Kim Sung-geun, a surgical gastroenterologist at Yeouido St. Mary's Hospital and head of the KMA's public relations council, said during Monday's press briefing that the speech left doctors even more disappointed.

"The contents of the speech simply touched on what doctors had already refuted. (We) have repeatedly called for legal support measures, (for example), as a solution," Kim noted.

"But it's frustrating that (the government) is offering to add 2,000 medical students to solve the situation, although we've suggested that the (quota hike) is not a right solution (to the lack of access to medical services in remote areas)."

Roh Hwan-kyu, the KMA's former chairperson, wrote on his own social media that the president made false remarks about needing more doctors.

"Providing biased information (to the public) is an abuse of power. If, as you say, (the government) has to suspend doctors' licenses to save the health care system, and if the medical system becomes paralyzed as a result, then it's your politics that are wrong. The entire nation knows, except for you," the post read.

President Yoon Suk Yeol bows to the public as he delivered a public statement that was televised on Monday. (Yonhap) President Yoon Suk Yeol bows to the public as he delivered a public statement that was televised on Monday. (Yonhap)

This comes as the staffing shortage in tertiary hospitals in the wake of the massive walkout of doctors -- both at the trainee and senior level -- is taking a toll on the nation.

The Health Ministry said Monday that the lingering shortage of doctors resulted in an increase over the past weekend in the number of hospitals that had notified patients their medical services would be limited.

Also, a story about a 33-month-old baby who failed to be admitted after going to nine hospitals due to staff shortages and died has been in the headlines.

Fatigue from the standoff between the government and medical circles -- lasting for about 1 1/2 months -- is inviting fresh conflict between the presidential office and the ruling party, as the conservative bloc's popularity struggles to rebound.

According to a poll for the last week of March by Realmeter, unveiled Monday, Yoon's approval rating fell for a fifth straight week to 36.3 percent, down from 41.9 percent a month earlier.

The support gap between the People Power Party and the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea had widened to nearly 8 percentage points as of Monday.

Rep. Cho Hae-jin, a three-term lawmaker of the ruling People Power Party representing a constituency in Busan, demanded Yoon apologize to the people for failing to communicate with the public and disrupting the administration's process of achieving the national goal. Cho also asked all secretaries and Cabinet members to resign immediately to "give the president the chance to start anew."

"Going this (current) way, the People Power Party will suffer a landslide defeat in the election. ... But we can find a way out of this jam if Yoon kneels in front of the public," Cho said on Sunday.

Ham Un-gyeong, a People Power Party candidate for the general election contending against liberal bigwig Rep. Jung Chung-rae, demanded Monday that Yoon "no longer intervene in politics" and asked him to leave the party.

Yoon said during the statement that he would push ahead with the policy necessary for the future generation without considering whether the policy is politically popular or unpopular, adding the previous administration's failure to implement unpopular policies translated into "a crisis in democracy."