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Doctors in South Korea walk out in strike of work conditions

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In recent days, South Korea's highly regarded health care system has been in chaos. Thousands of trainee doctors have walked off the job in protest. And as NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Seoul, most have defied a government order to return to work by today.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Korean).

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: At a recent rally, doctors chanted a warning of a medical system collapse. They oppose the government's plan to increase medical school enrollments. South Korea has one of the lowest ratios of doctors to population of any developed economy, and the government says that the country's aging population needs more doctors. Recent polls show the public generally supports the increase, but the doctors say the country doesn't need more of them. They just need more pay and better working conditions. Outside Seoul's Severance Hospital, 69-year-old Na Yoon-hee says she came for treatment for her heart condition. But the emergency room initially turned her away. She says South Korea's doctors are already very well-paid.

NA YOON-HEE: (Through interpreter) Of course, it takes a lot of hard work and time to become a doctor. But it's a respected profession, and they have their pride. It seems wrong to do this by holding people's lives hostage.

KUHN: She says she's skeptical that training more doctors will help.

NA: (Through interpreter) They all want to go into dermatology or plastic surgery. I hear they don't want to be surgeons and work with scalpels because the work is harder and you have to study more.

KUHN: South Koreans are generally satisfied with their universal health insurance, which costs a fraction per person of that in the U.S. But hospitals outside Seoul are struggling to care for an aging and shrinking population, and pediatricians, obstetricians and emergency room physicians are in short supply. Ryu O. Hada is an emergency room trainee in Daejeon city. He says the legal work limit for South Korean doctors is 88 hours a week, but he's worked as many as 126 hours. He argues that the government wants to train more doctors not to lighten trainees' burdens but to staff new profit-making hospitals.

RYU O HADA: (Through interpreter) Hospitals are saving up money to continue building branches, expanding and creating franchises. It's exploitation. This is modern slavery.

KUHN: Ryu insists he's not on strike. He says he's submitted his resignation. And having worked on a farm, he has other job options.

RYU: (Through interpreter) I know how to make wine, grape juice, apple juice and apple jam, so I plan to go back to farming.

KUHN: Kim Jae-heon leads a civic group calling for more public health care. He notes that around 90% of South Korean hospitals are in the private sector. He argues that the way to get more doctors to work in remote areas and less lucrative medical fields is to build more public hospitals and pay doctors to work there. But he says both doctors groups and the government agree that that wouldn't be profitable for them.

KIM JAE-HEON: (Through interpreter) The fundamental issue is expanding public health care. But since the two sides are in agreement on opposing that, they are not considering it. Instead, they are fighting over the peripheral issue of increasing the number of doctors.

KUHN: Kim says the current standoff between the government and the doctors is too costly to go on for long. Then again, he says, neither side shows any sign of backing down. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMMON SONG, "THEY SAY (FEAT. KANYE WEST AND JOHN LEGEND)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Anthony Kuhn
Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.