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Negotiator for South Korean walkout doctors sees ‘no future’ after Yoon meeting

Seoul, South Korea

A much-heralded first meeting between South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol and a negotiator for young doctors who walked off the job in February appeared to have made little progress on Thursday after the latter expressed pessimism on social media.

Yoon’s office said his first in-person talks lasted more than two hours, after he showed the first signs of flexibility in an approach until now marked by a hardline attitude, as crucial parliament elections approach next week.

Park Dan, head of the Korean Intern Resident Association, speaks during an interview with Reuters in Seoul, South Korea, on 25th February, 2024. PICTURE: Reuters/Daewoung Kim/File photo

“There is no future for medical care in Korea,” the negotiator, Park Dan, posted on his Facebook page after the meeting at which Yoon’s office said the two exchanged views on improving working conditions and compensation for the doctors.

It was not immediately clear what aspect of the talks Park was referring to. Reuters has sent him a text message to seek comment.

The long drawn-out walkout by thousands of trainee doctors nationwide is putting increasing strain on South Korea’s healthcare system, forcing hospitals to turn away patients and cut back on surgeries except in emergencies.

Park, the head of the Korean Intern Resident Association, accepted Yoon’s invitation to meet and conveyed the views of his colleagues, Yoon’s office said in its brief statement.

It added that Yoon would respect the position of the trainee doctors in future discussions with the medical community on healthcare reform, including an increase in physician numbers.

The centrepiece of Yoon’s contested plan is to boost medical school admissions and the number of doctors in a rapidly ageing society, but many are instead concerned about securing better working conditions and legal protection.

Unless action is taken, South Korea faces having 15,000 fewer doctors than it needs to maintain essential services, the government has warned.

Yoon had said his plan to raise the number of new medical students to 5,000 a year from 3,000 now is not up for discussion but signalled on Monday there might be room to adjust it if the medical community offered reasonable proposals.

South Korea’s practicing physicians and teachers in medical school have demanded that Yoon scrap his reform plans.

While a large majority of the public support the thrust of Yoon’s plan, a poll on Monday showed more people are unhappy with the way his government has handled the stalemate.

South Koreans go to the polls on April 10 to elect a 300-member parliament and Yoon’s conservative People Power Party faces an uphill battle to win back a majority now held by the opposition.


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