South Korea orders doctors to return to work amid prolonged strike

South Korea orders doctors to return to work amid prolonged strike

By Hyunsu Yim

SEOUL (Reuters) -The South Korean government issued a return-to-work order for private practitioners on Tuesday as more doctors including medical professors join the months-long strike to protest increasing medical school admissions.

The government will strictly enforce regulations against medical institutions that closed illegally, the health ministry said in a statement.

Around 4% of some 36,000 private clinics had notified the government of plans to be closed on Tuesday to take part in the protest, Health Minister Cho Kyoo-hong said.

But about 5,379 medical institutions were closed nationwide, or 14.9% of 36,059 institutions that were checked, as of 4 p.m. Tuesday, the health ministry confirmed.

President Yoon Suk Yeol said the doctors' strike was "regretful and disappointing".

"(The government) has no choice but to sternly deal with the illegal acts neglecting patients," Yoon said during a cabinet meeting, while offering to work together if the doctors return to work.

Under the law, doctors defying the return-to-work order can face suspension of their licences or other legal repercussions.

The government had previously issued a return-to-work order to striking trainee doctors before withdrawing it earlier this month as an olive branch.

The Korea Medical Association, a critic of the government's reforms, was leading Tuesday's strike. The group also staged a protest in Seoul on the same day, calling for reconsideration of increasing medical school admissions.

"The government should respect...all doctors in this land as life-saving experts, not slaves, and listen to their voices," Association President Lim Hyun-taek said.

At least some 10,000 people showed up for the protest, according to a Reuters witness, with protesters wearing a makeshift hat saying: "Prevent medical collapse."

According to a survey by local pollster nownsurvey conducted last week, nearly eight in 10 South Koreans oppose the doctors' strike.

Some doctors and medical staff have also openly criticised the collective action in response to the government's push for an increase in medical school admissions to address the shortage of doctors in the country.

Others have argued that increasing the number of doctors alone will do little to shore up essential services and rural areas grappling with a deepening shortage of doctors.

More than half of medical professors at Seoul National University hospitals on Monday went on indefinite strike, the Yonhap news agency reported.

(Reporting by Hyunsu Yim; Additional reporting by Joyce Lee; Editing by Michael Perry and Shinjini Ganguli)