Doctors and President Stand Firm, Stirring a Storm in South Korea’s Medical Sector

In South Korea, being a doctor or a “reserve doctor” is one of the most popular “revolving door” exits for right-wing politicians and conglomerate scions. A protest movement is spreading across the medical sector in South Korea.

According to a report by Xinhua News Agency citing Yonhap News Agency, intern doctors across South Korea began submitting their collective resignation letters on February 19th, protesting the government’s plan to increase the number of medical students.

The South Korean healthcare system heavily relies on intern doctors, who play a key role in emergency and acute care. There are about 13,000 intern doctors nationwide, with approximately 2,745 in Seoul’s “top five hospitals,” accounting for about 21% of the total number of doctors.

The Situation Escalates

On February 6th, the Yoon Suk-yeol government announced a comprehensive public health reform plan, which includes significantly expanding the current medical school admission quota from 3,000 to 5,000 by 2025, followed by substantial annual increases. Since 2006, the admission quota for medical schools in South Korea has remained unchanged at 3,000 per year.

The announcement immediately sparked widespread dissatisfaction among the most junior doctors—interns, leading to a public strike by 103 doctors from several hospitals in Seoul last week. Although 100 of them quickly returned to work under pressure from the government and related parties, the Korean Medical Association and its affiliates soon joined in supporting their intern doctors’ struggle, demanding the government to agree to reduce the expansion ratio by 11% by February 19th, or “do not rule out striking and supporting intern doctors’ resignations.”

The Korean Medical Association’s “Emergency Response Committee” harshly criticized the Yoon Suk-yeol government for “demonizing doctors” and “creating a hunting atmosphere.” They claimed that “if the government attempts to punish medical students and residents for their free-will actions in an unconstitutional manner, it will lead to a medical disaster,” and condemned the official statement as “merely providing a reason to suppress and punish doctors’ autonomous actions.”

On February 19th, intern doctors from Seoul’s renowned “top five hospitals” began submitting their resignation en masse and announced their participation in a strike initiated by the industry association starting from the 20th. On the same day, the Korean Association of Medical Colleges also issued a statement saying they would join the doctors’ struggle by taking “collective leave.”

The unified action of the industry associations undoubtedly emboldened the previously anxious protesters. The Ministry of Health and Welfare announced on February 16th that “not a single intern doctor had actually submitted a resignation letter,” but by the evening of the 19th, it was confirmed that up to 6,000 resignation letters had been received, covering nearly half of the hospitals nationwide and accounting for about 55% of all intern doctors in South Korea, with more than a thousand not waiting for a response before stopping work.

From the afternoon of February 19th, the “top five hospitals” in Seoul began reducing medical services, with some hospitals even canceling half of the planned surgeries. It is foreseeable that as the strike and protest movement expands, this number may increase and affect other doctor groups, including resident doctors and attending physicians.

Government’s Unyielding Stance

As many analysts have pointed out, the Yoon Suk-yeol government’s unyielding stance has exacerbated the conflict.

On February 17th, South Korean police ordered striking intern doctors to return to work, threatening “otherwise, they will be punished for violating the Medical Service Law”; on February 18th, the Prime Minister of South Korea used tough language to reject the demands of several major medical associations regarding reducing the expansion ratio, stating that the expansion is “urgent.”

On February 19th, the Ministry of Health and Welfare issued an order for intern doctors to return to work, asking hospitals to refuse their resignations and vowing to punish those who participated in the strike. On the same day, President Yoon Suk-yeol firmly stated that “we will not tolerate” the collective action of intern doctors, claiming “we are not the previous government.”

On February 20th, the authorities announced the revocation of medical licenses of two leaders of the Korean Medical Association, claiming that if it is found that they “incited the strike,” the punishment would be intensified, and the police issued a threat to “consider arresting the strike leaders.”

However, these threats not only failed to resolve the crisis but also prompted intern doctors to adopt a risky mentality of “only making a big fuss will exempt everyone from blame,” and stimulated a sense of dire situation among higher-level doctors and medical students, leading to the escalation and explosion of the crisis.

Why Won’t the Government Step Back? The reason lies in the parliamentary elections in April.

Currently, Yoon Suk-yeol’s right-wing People Power Party holds fewer seats than the Democratic Party, facing great electoral pressure and an unclear outlook, urgently needing to score a “winning point” on the rare nationally supported and yet unimplemented option of medical school expansion during the main opponent’s governance period, hence the unyielding attitude.

South Korean doctors are known as the “white-coated nobility,” with senior doctors’ salaries leading globally, but such high salary standards come at the extreme cost of “scarcity.” In 2022, South Korea had only 2.5 doctors per thousand people, far below the OECD average.

Especially in remote areas and fields such as emergency care, pediatrics, and obstetrics and gynecology, there is a severe shortage of professional doctors, forming a stark contrast with the abnormally prosperous plastic surgery and dermatology industries, causing serious public dissatisfaction. Therefore, increasing the number of doctors is one of the few policies of the Yoon Suk-yeol government that receives broad support from all sectors and factions nationwide.

The reason for the strong resistance from several major Korean medical associations, doctors at all levels, and medical students against the expansion is that “it will increase the teaching pressure on medical schools and lower the average quality of medical students.” They claim that “the government has ignored the issues that make these areas unattractive: poor working conditions and low salaries for interns and residents,” stating that “the priority is to improve the treatment of doctors in these fields, convert more interns to regular staff to motivate them, rather than increasing the number of doctors.”

However, many observers bluntly point out that the doctors’ mentality is clearly the “bus-squeezing effect,” fearing that more people boarding the bus will dilute their interests. Professor Kwon Soon-man, a public health expert at Seoul National University, frankly said that a significant increase in the total number of doctors means that doctor resources are no longer scarce, which means greater competitive pressure and lower income prospects for those who have become or are about to become doctors, “This is the most real and fundamental reason why they are so desperately resisting.”

Both Sides May Not Dare to Overexert

However, both sides, although seemingly fierce, may not dare to overexert.

From the doctors’ side, the main participants in the forefront of the protest are numerous and lower-status intern doctors. They have relatively low incomes and face the pressure of becoming regular staff. Once trapped in a “protracted war,” differentiation may occur, and the vast majority of protesters withdrew previously when they did not receive