S. Korean medical community divided in debate over collective strike

Posted on : 2020-09-07 18:32 KST Modified on : 2020-09-07 18:32 KST
KIRA agrees to negotiations with government, Korean Medical Association retains staunch position
Members of the Young Doctors Emergency Action Committee hold a press conference at the Seoul Medical Association on Sept. 1. (Baek So-ah, staff photographer)
Members of the Young Doctors Emergency Action Committee hold a press conference at the Seoul Medical Association on Sept. 1. (Baek So-ah, staff photographer)

A committee representing South Korea’s trainee doctors has agreed to provisionally suspend the collective walkout that it had organized in response to the government’s plan to increase admission quotas as medical schools and to establish a public medical school. The committee also intends to have medical interns and residents return to their posts following an online convention on Monday. But the dust hasn’t settled yet with interns and residents on the front lines staunchly opposed to calling off the walkout and medical students still refusing to take the government’s medical licensing exam.

Park Ji-hyun, chair of the Young Doctors Emergency Action Committee (which represents the Korean Intern Resident Association, or KIRA), released a statement on social media on Sunday announcing that the committee will halt its collective action. Park has been leading the trainee doctors’ walkout for nearly a month now.

“The Korean Medical Association’s hastily reached agreement with the government and the National Assembly has undermined our justification [for continuing the walkout]. If dissension emerges inside the movement, we’ll be taking a shortcut to defeat,” Park said.

Park’s statement incorporated the results of a meeting of the emergency committee held the night before. Park’s proposal to end the walkout but launch an even tougher strike if the terms of the agreement aren’t kept provoked a fierce debate in the committee, which is composed of interns, residents, attending physicians, and medical students. The committee ultimately passed her motion.

During the debate, there was a scuffle between a medical school professor who wanted the strike to continue and a trainee who opposed that idea, ultimately requiring the intervention of the police. The Yeongdeungpo Police Department said that the trainee, a man in his 20s, had been booked for assault but not taken into custody. The police plan to continue their investigation into the incident.

The emergency committee was planning to have trainees return to their jobs on Monday, but it hasn’t made that official. News about the decision to call off the walkout prompted calls for all trainees to be allowed to vote. “We won’t be returning to work tomorrow [Sept. 7] but will be maintaining the current situation. We’ll be holding a conference online for all trainees at 1 pm and will candidly disclose everything that has happened so far. We’ll adjust the timeframe for returning to work until after Monday so that all KIRA members can take part [in the conference],” Park said.

But Park left no doubt that the committee wouldn’t accept demands for a KIRA-wide vote on whether to continue the walkout, which she described as “the path to our own annihilation.”

Students still refusing to take medical licensing exam

In a separate move, the Korean Medical Student Association (KMSA) refused to budge from its hardline stance on Sunday, declaring that medical students won’t take part in the rescheduled skills section of the medical licensing exam. After reaching an agreement with the Korea Medical Association (KMA) on Sept. 4, the Ministry of Health and Welfare (MOHW) extended the deadline for reapplying for the licensing exam until Sept. 6 to give a second chance to medical students who’d taken part in the collective action by refusing to take the exam, but KMSA members are still refusing to take the test.

MOHW had even agreed to adjust the exam schedule so that medical students who apply between Sept. 1-18, the first two weeks of the exam, can take the exam after November. MOHW made that concession based on the advice of the KMA, medical school professors, and other respected figures in the medical establishment who said that students didn’t have enough time to prepare for their exams.

“As we’ve already announced, students who don’t apply for the skills test before midnight on Sept. 6 won’t be able to take it this year. The skills test will go ahead as planned on Sept. 8,” said Son Yeong-rae, MOHW spokesperson. Son made it clear that no further applications would be accepted.

Park, the chair of KIRA’s emergency committee, blamed the divisions in the medical community on KMA President Choi Dae-zip. She took issue with the KMA signing an agreement promising to end the walkout while ignoring the medical trainees’ demand for the government to make a written pledge to retract its contentious policies.

“We’re not going to immediately impeach Choi Dae-zip. There isn’t much time left in his term, and the executives who are in cahoots with him would remain in power [even if he were impeached],” Park said.

But Park added that “We will be making an effort to unionize medical trainees so that we can express our positions more consistently and be guaranteed the right to collective action.” Those remarks indicate that KIRA is planning to separate itself from the KMA and become an independent organization capable of taking action on its own.

KIRA has continually taken lead in blocking negotiations

Powered by group hardliners in the group, KIRA has taken the lead in collective action at the KMA and has several times thrown up roadblocks to the negotiations. When MOHW and the KMA reached a tentative agreement on Aug. 24, two weeks ago, to halt the government’s policy until the COVID-19 outbreak in the Seoul area was brought under control and resume debate afterward, that agreement was torpedoed just one day later by pushback from KIRA. And when Han Jung-ae, chief policymaker of the Democratic Party, offered a compromise proposal on Aug. 28 in which the Democratic Party agreed to stop pushing the bill through the National Assembly, as KIRA had requested, KIRA rejected the proposal on the grounds that the party hadn’t agreed to “retract” the bill entirely.

Once Choi Dae-zip secured full authority to negotiate with the government, he succeeded at drafting an agreement that would include doctors in government deliberations about financial incentives for doctors to practice in the countryside, an improved training environment for young doctors, and shuffling the membership of the committee reviewing health insurance policy. But even then, a crowd of KIRA members showed up at the signing ceremony and attempted to physically prevent the agreement from being signed.

By Choi Ha-yan, Kim Mi-na, and Bae Ji-hyun, staff reporters

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