Standoff continues as faculty resign at Korea’s big 5 hospitals, prompting calls for compromise

Posted on : 2024-03-28 16:50 KST Modified on : 2024-03-28 16:50 KST
Some within the ruling party have called on the administration to go further than dialogue and to hold renewed discussions on the 2,000-student figure
A person in scrubs walks down an otherwise empty hallway at a major university hospital in Seoul on March 24, 2024. (Yonhap)
A person in scrubs walks down an otherwise empty hallway at a major university hospital in Seoul on March 24, 2024. (Yonhap)

The South Korean government and physician groups have failed to reach common ground that would allow for dialogue on their conflict over a planned increase in the nationwide medical college admission cap.

The government is insisting on an increase of 2,000 seats as a precondition for dialogue, while the physician lobby is demanding that the planned increase be walked back entirely. Within the ruling People Power Party, some are calling on the administration to go a step further than “constructive dialogue” and hold renewed discussions on the scale of the increase.

“At present, the allocation of [medical college] seats [per institution] for the 2,000 new students has already been completed,” a senior official with the presidential office told reporters Wednesday.

“In that sense, we are asking [the physician community] to engage in dialogue once again without preconditions,” they added.

The same day, Minister of the Interior and Safety Lee Sang-min presided over a Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasures Headquarters meeting on the collective action by physicians, where he reaffirmed the administration’s position and called the planned increase a “necessary prerequisite for initiating the normalization of health care.”

Also at the headquarters briefing, Second Vice Health Minister Park Min-soo stressed that while “all positions can be discussed,” the administration remained “firmly unchanged in its position on the decision to increase the cap by 2,000 students.”

In a briefing Wednesday, the Korean Medical Association (KMA) emergency leadership committee fired back by saying that a withdrawal of the planned increase was a prerequisite for dialogue.

“To resolve the current situation, the administration needs to come up with something that will allow interns and residents to return to work quickly,” said Kim Taek-woo, the chairman of the committee.

Kim also called on President Yoon Suk-yeol to “meet with stakeholders themselves, the interns and residents, for discussions to break through the present situation.”

Kim Sung-geun, the emergency committee’s deputy spokesperson said, “Basically, we’re asking [Yoon] to fix his own mess.”

“We want him to walk back the [admission cap increase] disease, and [the KMA] can only participate in dialogue under that condition,” he added.

With neither the physicians nor administrations showing a hint of backing down, some in the ruling party have suggested the scale of the planned increase should be reexamined.

On Tuesday, People Power Party interim leader Han Dong-hoon said, “I think we need to have constructive dialogue without restricting the agenda so that we can reach a good conclusion.”

Ahn Cheol-soo, the party’s campaign committee co-chairperson, went a step further in an SBS radio appearance on Wednesday, stressing that the “2,000 students” number stated by the administration was “not sacred” and “not based on anything.”

“Whether it’s 4,000 students or 2,000, in my view, it’s all just a rule of thumb,” he said, adding that there should be “renewed discussions on an appropriate figure for the medical college cap increase.”

The calls by physician groups to cancel the planned increase are expected to only grow more forceful. On Tuesday evening, the Korean Medical Association selected Lim Hyun-taek — known to be one of its biggest hard-liners — as its new chairperson. Lim is a prominent figure who serves as president of the Korean Pediatric Association.

“If they’re claiming the ‘2000 seats’ number absolutely cannot be changed, you have to question whether they’re actually willing to pursue dialogue,” Lim told the Hankyoreh that day.

He went on to say, “If anything, they ought to reduce the [current] medical college cap by 500 to 1,000 seats.”

He added that the preconditions for dialogue included “a reduction in the cap, the resignations of the minister and vice ministers of health, and a presidential apology.”

Meanwhile, medical college faculty members continued to submit their resignations to protest the administration’s actions punishing interns and residents.

On Wednesday, the association of medical faculty at the Catholic University of Korea — which has Seoul St. Mary’s Hospital as an affiliated institution — made the decision for its members to tender their resignations. With that, faculty members at all of the so-called “big five” hospitals in Seoul have joined the mass resignation move.

By Kim Yoon-ju, staff reporter; Son Ji-min, staff reporter; Lee Seung-jun, staff reporter; Shin Min-jung, staff reporter

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