By Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol showed the first signs of flexibility in his medical reform plan as a prolonged standoff with doctors is ramping up pressure ahead of next week’s parliamentary elections which are expected to be close.

The plan, chiefly aimed at boosting medical school admissions by 2,000 from 3,000 starting in 2025, has emerged as a key issue in the elections, in which Yoon’s ruling party seeks to recapture a majority in the opposition-controlled parliament.

A drawn-out walkout by thousands of trainee doctors nationwide in protest at the plan is increasingly putting strains on the country’s healthcare system.

Yoon, who has taken a hard line approach to labour disputes, had been initially been emboldened by polls showing South Koreans overwhelmingly support the idea of adding more doctors.

But as medical school professors and community doctors cut working hours this week and threatened to resign en masse unless the government negotiates, some voters have started to blame Yoon for refusing to seek a compromise.


On Monday, Yoon for the first time signalled a possibility for adjusting the reform initiative in a 50-minute public address, saying his administration is open to talks with doctors if they offer a “reasonable, unified” alternative proposal.

Yoon denied considering “political gains and losses” in pushing for any reform.

A senior presidential official said Yoon meant to express his willingness to be “flexible” in implementing the policy regardless of the elections.

The Korean Medical Association, the largest grouping of doctors, said Yoon’s speech was “disappointing” and failed to fully address the industry’s concerns including better work conditions and legal protection.


Some analyst said the timing was clearly related to the election and changing public opinion.

“Why would he give a speech saying he can be flexible just nine days before the election? Because he’s thinking the tide is turning against him,” said Kim Hyung-joon, a professor at Pai Chai University.

“Public backing for the reform did help his ratings go up temporarily, but people would feel fatigue and anxiety as the impasse with doctors drags on,” he added.

Cho Jin-man, a professor at Duksung Women’s University, said Yoon seems to have lost out on initial public support due partly to his lack of political experience and failure to seek an early compromise.

However, the official from Yoon’s office, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter, said it was unrelated to the election and they did not expect the issue to be resolved by then.

Another government official warned against politically interpreting the speech. “We have little leverage on this, and it would be crazy if anyone attempts to exploit an issue that has everything to do with people’s lives in an election.”


A poll published on Monday by Research & Research showed nearly 86% of respondents still support increased medical school admissions, but more than 57% were dissatisfied with the government’s handling of the walkout.

Only about 29% said Yoon’s proposal should be implemented as planned, while 57% favour raising medical school quotas but a compromise with doctors on the scale and timing is needed.

A Realmeter poll on Monday showed that Yoon’s ratings dropped for a fifth straight week after hitting an eight-month high in late February when the student doctors launched a strike, which was echoed by a Gallup poll from Friday.

Yoon’s speech came as his People Power Party is aiming to win a majority in and the single-chamber, 300-seat assembly, though polls show the elections too close to call.

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Additional reporting by Minwoo Park; Editing by Josh Smith and Michael Perry)

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