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South Korea orders doctors who joined protracted strike over medical school plan to return to work

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South Korea orders doctors who joined protracted strike over medical school plan to return to work
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South Korea orders doctors who joined protracted strike over medical school plan to return to work

2024-06-18 21:48 Last Updated At:21:50

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korean officials issued return-to-work orders for doctors participating in a one-day walkout Tuesday as part of a protracted strike against government plans to boost medical school admissions, starting next year.

Since February, more than 12,000 trainee doctors have been on strike in a deepening standoff with government officials, who want to grow the country’s number of doctors by up to 10,000 by 2035. Many reject the plan, saying schools won’t be able to handle the increased flow and that the quality of the country’s medical services would suffer.

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Members of The Korea Medical Association attend at a rally against the government's medical policy in Seoul, South Korea, Tuesday, June 18, 2024. South Korean officials issued return-to-work orders for doctors participating in a one-day walkout Tuesday as part of a protracted strike against government plans to boost medical school admissions, starting next year. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korean officials issued return-to-work orders for doctors participating in a one-day walkout Tuesday as part of a protracted strike against government plans to boost medical school admissions, starting next year.

A flag of Seoul Medical Association flutters in the wind during a rally against the government's medical policy in Seoul, South Korea, Tuesday, June 18, 2024. South Korean officials issued return-to-work orders for doctors participating in a one-day walkout Tuesday as part of a protracted strike against government plans to boost medical school admissions, starting next year. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

A flag of Seoul Medical Association flutters in the wind during a rally against the government's medical policy in Seoul, South Korea, Tuesday, June 18, 2024. South Korean officials issued return-to-work orders for doctors participating in a one-day walkout Tuesday as part of a protracted strike against government plans to boost medical school admissions, starting next year. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

Members of The Korea Medical Association arrive for a rally against the government's medical policy in Seoul, South Korea, Tuesday, June 18, 2024. South Korean officials issued return-to-work orders for doctors participating in a one-day walkout Tuesday as part of a protracted strike against government plans to boost medical school admissions, starting next year. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

Members of The Korea Medical Association arrive for a rally against the government's medical policy in Seoul, South Korea, Tuesday, June 18, 2024. South Korean officials issued return-to-work orders for doctors participating in a one-day walkout Tuesday as part of a protracted strike against government plans to boost medical school admissions, starting next year. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

Members of The Korea Medical Association attend at a rally against the government's medical policy in Seoul, South Korea, Tuesday, June 18, 2024. South Korean officials issued return-to-work orders for doctors participating in a one-day walkout Tuesday as part of a protracted strike against government plans to boost medical school admissions, starting next year. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

Members of The Korea Medical Association attend at a rally against the government's medical policy in Seoul, South Korea, Tuesday, June 18, 2024. South Korean officials issued return-to-work orders for doctors participating in a one-day walkout Tuesday as part of a protracted strike against government plans to boost medical school admissions, starting next year. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

Members of The Korea Medical Association attend at a rally against the government's medical policy in Seoul, South Korea, Tuesday, June 18, 2024. South Korean officials issued return-to-work orders for doctors participating in a one-day walkout Tuesday as part of a protracted strike against government plans to boost medical school admissions, starting next year. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

Members of The Korea Medical Association attend at a rally against the government's medical policy in Seoul, South Korea, Tuesday, June 18, 2024. South Korean officials issued return-to-work orders for doctors participating in a one-day walkout Tuesday as part of a protracted strike against government plans to boost medical school admissions, starting next year. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

About 4% of the country’s 36,000 private medical facilities, categorized as clinics, have told authorities they would participate in a one-day strike on Tuesday, according to South Korea’s Health and Welfare Ministry.

This came a day after hundreds of medical school professors at four major hospitals affiliated with Seoul National University entered an indefinite walkout, raising concerns about disruptions in medical services.

There’s also a possibility that the strike could expand.

At a rally with thousands of doctors in Seoul on Tuesday, Lim Hyun-taek, the hard-line leader of the Korean Medical Association, said he would push for its members to enter an indefinite strike on June 27 if the government rejects its demands to completely scrap plans to increase medical school admissions. KMA is the country’s largest doctors’ lobby with more than 100,000 members.

South Korean Deputy Health Minister Jun Byung-wang said the one-day strike by clinics and the walkout by SNU-affiliated medical professors haven’t immediately caused significant problems in medical services.

He accused the protracted strike of threatening to destroy a “trusting relationship between doctors and patients our society has built for long.”

“We cannot allow unlimited freedom to the medical profession,” Jun said Tuesday. “Since they benefit from a medical licensing system that limits the supply (of doctors) and ensures their monopoly of the profession, doctors must uphold their end of professional and ethical responsibilities and legal obligations under the medical law.”

Under South Korean law, doctors defying return-to-work orders can face suspensions of their licenses or other punishment.

Jun said they planned to request hospitals to pursue damage suits against the striking medical professors if their walkouts prolong and disrupt medical services. He said hospitals that fail to sufficiently respond to the walkouts may face disadvantages in health insurance compensation and that the government plans to push legal action against any hospital that cancels reserved treatments with patients without notifying them in advance.

In a cabinet meeting on Tuesday, President Yoon Suk Yeol called the monthslong strike “regrettable” and warned that his government will sternly respond to “illegal activities that abandon patients.”

The striking doctors suffered a significant legal setback in May when the Seoul High Court rejected their request to block the government plan, which would raise the yearly medical school enrollment quota by 2,000 from the current cap of 3,058.

South Korea's doctor-to-population ratio is one of the lowest in the developed world.

Government officials say the country needs significantly more doctors to cope with the fast-aging population and have downplayed doctors’ concerns about a possible decline in future incomes.

The striking doctors are a fraction of all doctors in South Korea, estimated to number between 115,000 and 140,000. Still, the walkouts have resulted in cancellations of numerous surgeries and other treatments at some large hospitals, which are more dependent on junior doctors and trainees.

Government officials earlier threatened to suspend the licenses of the striking doctors but later halted those administrative steps to facilitate dialogue.

Members of The Korea Medical Association attend at a rally against the government's medical policy in Seoul, South Korea, Tuesday, June 18, 2024. South Korean officials issued return-to-work orders for doctors participating in a one-day walkout Tuesday as part of a protracted strike against government plans to boost medical school admissions, starting next year. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

Members of The Korea Medical Association attend at a rally against the government's medical policy in Seoul, South Korea, Tuesday, June 18, 2024. South Korean officials issued return-to-work orders for doctors participating in a one-day walkout Tuesday as part of a protracted strike against government plans to boost medical school admissions, starting next year. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

A flag of Seoul Medical Association flutters in the wind during a rally against the government's medical policy in Seoul, South Korea, Tuesday, June 18, 2024. South Korean officials issued return-to-work orders for doctors participating in a one-day walkout Tuesday as part of a protracted strike against government plans to boost medical school admissions, starting next year. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

A flag of Seoul Medical Association flutters in the wind during a rally against the government's medical policy in Seoul, South Korea, Tuesday, June 18, 2024. South Korean officials issued return-to-work orders for doctors participating in a one-day walkout Tuesday as part of a protracted strike against government plans to boost medical school admissions, starting next year. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

Members of The Korea Medical Association arrive for a rally against the government's medical policy in Seoul, South Korea, Tuesday, June 18, 2024. South Korean officials issued return-to-work orders for doctors participating in a one-day walkout Tuesday as part of a protracted strike against government plans to boost medical school admissions, starting next year. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

Members of The Korea Medical Association arrive for a rally against the government's medical policy in Seoul, South Korea, Tuesday, June 18, 2024. South Korean officials issued return-to-work orders for doctors participating in a one-day walkout Tuesday as part of a protracted strike against government plans to boost medical school admissions, starting next year. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

Members of The Korea Medical Association attend at a rally against the government's medical policy in Seoul, South Korea, Tuesday, June 18, 2024. South Korean officials issued return-to-work orders for doctors participating in a one-day walkout Tuesday as part of a protracted strike against government plans to boost medical school admissions, starting next year. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

Members of The Korea Medical Association attend at a rally against the government's medical policy in Seoul, South Korea, Tuesday, June 18, 2024. South Korean officials issued return-to-work orders for doctors participating in a one-day walkout Tuesday as part of a protracted strike against government plans to boost medical school admissions, starting next year. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

Members of The Korea Medical Association attend at a rally against the government's medical policy in Seoul, South Korea, Tuesday, June 18, 2024. South Korean officials issued return-to-work orders for doctors participating in a one-day walkout Tuesday as part of a protracted strike against government plans to boost medical school admissions, starting next year. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

Members of The Korea Medical Association attend at a rally against the government's medical policy in Seoul, South Korea, Tuesday, June 18, 2024. South Korean officials issued return-to-work orders for doctors participating in a one-day walkout Tuesday as part of a protracted strike against government plans to boost medical school admissions, starting next year. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

Treason cases were rare in Russia 30 years ago, with only a handful brought annually. In the past decade and especially since the 2022 invasion of Ukraine, however, the number has soared, along with espionage prosecutions.

They are ensnaring citizens and foreigners alike. Recent victims range from Kremlin critics and independent journalists to veteran scientists working with countries that Moscow considers friendly.

One rights group counted over 100 known treason cases in 2023, with probably another 100 that nobody knows about.

The prosecutions have raised comparisons to the show trials and purges under Soviet dictator Josef Stalin in the 1930s.

They are usually held in strict isolation in Moscow’s notorious Lefortovo Prison, their trials are held behind closed doors and almost always result in convictions and long prison terms. They are investigated almost exclusively by the powerful Federal Security Service, or FSB, with specific charges and evidence shrouded in secrecy.

These cases stand apart from the unprecedented crackdown on dissent under President Vladimir Putin, who in 2022 urged security services to “harshly suppress the actions of foreign intelligence services (and) promptly identify traitors, spies and saboteurs.”

Some key takeaways of this trend of prosecuting high crimes:

Mass anti-government protests erupted in Moscow in 2011-12, with officials blaming the West. The legal definition of treason was then expanded to include providing vaguely defined “assistance” to foreign countries or organizations, effectively exposing to prosecution anyone in contact with foreigners.

The changes to the law were heavily criticized by rights advocates, including the Presidential Human Rights Council. Putin later agreed with council members that “there shouldn’t be any broad interpretation of what high treason is.”

But that broad interpretation was exactly what the authorities began applying — especially after 2014, when Russia illegally annexed Crimea from Ukraine, threw its weight behind a separatist insurgency in the eastern part of the country, and fell out with the West for the first time since the Cold War.

Svetlana Davydova, a mother of seven in the western region of Smolensk, contacted Ukraine’s Embassy in Moscow in 2014, saying she thought Russian troops from a nearby base were heading to eastern Ukraine. She was arrested in 2015 on treason charges under the law's expanded definition.

The case drew national attention and outrage. Russia at the time denied its troops were involved in eastern Ukraine, and the case against Davydova directly contradicted that narrative. The charges against her were eventually dropped in what turned out to be a rare exception to the increasing cases that in subsequent years consistently ended in convictions and prison terms.

Prosecution targets included journalists writing about Russia's military, as well as eminent scientists in fields that could have applications in weapons development. Professional groups say the scientists are punished for publishing articles in journals and participating in international projects that usually are part of their normal work.

Among them:

— Ivan Safronov, an adviser to the Roscosmos space agency and a former military affairs journalist, was convicted of treason in 2022 and was sentenced to 22 years in prison. He denied the charges, and his prosecution was widely seen as retaliation for his reporting on the military.

— Physicist Dmitry Kolker was arrested on treason charges in Novosibirsk in 2022, taken by the FSB from a hospital while suffering from advanced pancreatic cancer. Kolker, 54, had studied light waves and gave several approved lectures in China. He “wasn't revealing anything (secret) in them,” said his son, Maksim. Shortly after the scientist was taken to Lefortovo Prison, the family was told he had died in a hospital.

— Valery Golubkin, a physicist specializing in aerodynamics who is now 71, was arrested in 2021 and convicted of treason in 2023. His state-run research institute was working on an international project of a hypersonic civilian aircraft, and he was asked by his employer to help with reports on the project. His 12-year sentence was upheld despite appeals, and his family now can only hope for his release on parole.

— Physicist Anatoly Maslov, 77, who was working on hypersonics, was convicted of treason in May and sentenced to 14 years in prison.

Treason or espionage cases involving writers, journalists and others:

— Vladimir Kara-Murza, an opposition politician, was charged with treason in 2022 after giving speeches in the West that were critical of Russia. After surviving what he believed were attempts to poison him in 2015 and 2017, Kara-Murza was convicted last year and sentenced to 25 years in prison.

— The Wall Street Journal’s Evan Gershkovich was arrested in 2023 on espionage charges, the first American reporter so accused since the Cold War. Gershkovich, whose trial began in June, denies the charges, and the U.S. government has declared him wrongfully detained.

— Ksenia Khavana, 33, was arrested on treason charges in Yekaterinburg in February, accused of collecting money for Ukraine’s military. The dual Russian-U.S. citizen had returned from Los Angeles to visit relatives, and the charges reportedly stem from a $51 donation to a United States-based charity that helps Ukraine.

— Paul Whelan, a U.S. corporate security executive who traveled to Moscow to attend a wedding, was arrested in 2018 and convicted of espionage two years later, and sentenced to 16 years in prison. He denies the charges.

Some cases involving scientists can probably be traced to a Putin speech in 2018, when he touted Russia's hypersonic weapons program. The security services may want to show the Kremlin that Russia's scientific advances are so impressive that foreign powers want to go after them, lawyer Evgeny Smirnov says.

If a security service wants to authorize surveillance or a wiretap on a subject, it's far easier to get authorities to approve such measures if it's for a treason case, said Andrei Soldatov, a journalist and expert on the FSB.

Smirnov says the rise in prosecutions came after the FSB allowed its regional branches in 2022 to pursue certain kinds of treason cases, and officials in those areas sought to curry favor with their superiors to advance their careers.

Above all, Soldatov said, is the FSB’s genuine belief of “the fragility of the regime” at a time of a political turmoil — either from mass protests, as in 2011-12, or now amid the war in Ukraine.

“They sincerely believe (the regime) can break,” even if it’s really not the case, he said.

FILE - Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine, listens to a verdict that found him guilty of espionage in Moscow, Russia, on June 15, 2020. Whelan, a U.S. corporate security executive who traveled to Moscow to attend a wedding, was arrested in 2018. He was sentenced to 16 years in prison and denies the charges. (Sofia Sandurskaya, Moscow News Agency photo via AP, File)

FILE - Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine, listens to a verdict that found him guilty of espionage in Moscow, Russia, on June 15, 2020. Whelan, a U.S. corporate security executive who traveled to Moscow to attend a wedding, was arrested in 2018. He was sentenced to 16 years in prison and denies the charges. (Sofia Sandurskaya, Moscow News Agency photo via AP, File)

FILE - Ksenia Karelina, also known by the last name of Khavana, sits in a defendant’s cage in a court in Yekaterinburg, Russia, on Thursday, June 20, 2024. The dual Russian-U.S. citizen was arrested on treason charges in Yekaterinburg in February after returning from Los Angeles to visit relatives, and the charges reportedly stem from her $51 donation to a U.S. charity that helps Ukraine. (AP Photo, File)

FILE - Ksenia Karelina, also known by the last name of Khavana, sits in a defendant’s cage in a court in Yekaterinburg, Russia, on Thursday, June 20, 2024. The dual Russian-U.S. citizen was arrested on treason charges in Yekaterinburg in February after returning from Los Angeles to visit relatives, and the charges reportedly stem from her $51 donation to a U.S. charity that helps Ukraine. (AP Photo, File)

FILE - Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich is escorted from court after a pre-trial hearing in Moscow, Russia, Friday, Jan. 26, 2024. Gershkovich was arrested on espionage charges during a reporting trip to the Ural Mountains city of Yekaterinburg. He, his employer and the U.S. government have vehemently denied the charges, and Washington has declared him wrongfully detained. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, File)

FILE - Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich is escorted from court after a pre-trial hearing in Moscow, Russia, Friday, Jan. 26, 2024. Gershkovich was arrested on espionage charges during a reporting trip to the Ural Mountains city of Yekaterinburg. He, his employer and the U.S. government have vehemently denied the charges, and Washington has declared him wrongfully detained. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, File)

FILE - Russian opposition activist Vladimir Kara-Murza is escorted to a hearing in a court in Moscow, Russia, Feb. 8, 2023. Kara-Murza, an opposition politician, was charged with treason in 2022 after giving speeches in the West that were critical of Russia. He rejected the charges as politically motivated. He was convicted last year and given a 25-year prison term, the harshest sentence handed to a Kremlin critic in post-Soviet Russia. (AP Photo, File)

FILE - Russian opposition activist Vladimir Kara-Murza is escorted to a hearing in a court in Moscow, Russia, Feb. 8, 2023. Kara-Murza, an opposition politician, was charged with treason in 2022 after giving speeches in the West that were critical of Russia. He rejected the charges as politically motivated. He was convicted last year and given a 25-year prison term, the harshest sentence handed to a Kremlin critic in post-Soviet Russia. (AP Photo, File)

FILE - In this photo released by the Moscow City Court Press Service, Valery Golubkin, a physicist specializing in aerodynamics, stands in a defendant’s cage in a court in Moscow, Russia, on Monday, June 26, 2023. Golubkin, 71, was arrested in 2021 and convicted of treason in 2023 and sentenced to 12 years in prison. Authorities accused him of passing state secrets abroad, but he and his lawyers insisted he merely submitted research reports on an international project that didn’t contain any state secrets and were cleared for submission. (Moscow City Court Press Service via AP, File)

FILE - In this photo released by the Moscow City Court Press Service, Valery Golubkin, a physicist specializing in aerodynamics, stands in a defendant’s cage in a court in Moscow, Russia, on Monday, June 26, 2023. Golubkin, 71, was arrested in 2021 and convicted of treason in 2023 and sentenced to 12 years in prison. Authorities accused him of passing state secrets abroad, but he and his lawyers insisted he merely submitted research reports on an international project that didn’t contain any state secrets and were cleared for submission. (Moscow City Court Press Service via AP, File)

FILE - In this photo taken from video provided by the Moscow City Court, Ivan Safronov, an adviser to the director of Russia's space agency, right, stands in court prior to a hearing in Moscow, Russia, on Monday, Sept. 5, 2022. Safronov, a former military affairs journalist, was convicted of treason and sentenced to 22 years in prison. Authorities accused him of passing military secrets to Czech intelligence and a German national, which he denied. The case has been widely viewed as retaliation for his reporting. (Moscow City Court via AP, File)

FILE - In this photo taken from video provided by the Moscow City Court, Ivan Safronov, an adviser to the director of Russia's space agency, right, stands in court prior to a hearing in Moscow, Russia, on Monday, Sept. 5, 2022. Safronov, a former military affairs journalist, was convicted of treason and sentenced to 22 years in prison. Authorities accused him of passing military secrets to Czech intelligence and a German national, which he denied. The case has been widely viewed as retaliation for his reporting. (Moscow City Court via AP, File)

FILE - Ivan Safronov, an adviser to the director of Russia's space agency, stands in a defendant’s cage in a courtroom in Moscow, Russia, on July 16, 2020. Safronov, a former military affairs journalist, was convicted of treason and sentenced to 22 years in prison. Authorities accused him of passing military secrets to Czech intelligence and a German national, which he denied. The case has been widely viewed as retaliation for his reporting. (AP Photo, File)

FILE - Ivan Safronov, an adviser to the director of Russia's space agency, stands in a defendant’s cage in a courtroom in Moscow, Russia, on July 16, 2020. Safronov, a former military affairs journalist, was convicted of treason and sentenced to 22 years in prison. Authorities accused him of passing military secrets to Czech intelligence and a German national, which he denied. The case has been widely viewed as retaliation for his reporting. (AP Photo, File)

FILE - Svetlana Davydova, a mother of seven who lives in the city of Vyazma in western Russia and was arrested in 2015 on treason charges and later released, arrives at a news conference in Moscow, Russia, on Friday, March 13, 2015. Davydova was arrested after she contacted Ukraine's Embassy in Moscow in 2014, saying she thought Russian troops from a nearby base were heading to eastern Ukraine, where a separatist insurgency was unfolding. Russia at the time denied its troops involvement in eastern Ukraine, and the charges against Davydova were eventually dropped. (AP Photo, File)

FILE - Svetlana Davydova, a mother of seven who lives in the city of Vyazma in western Russia and was arrested in 2015 on treason charges and later released, arrives at a news conference in Moscow, Russia, on Friday, March 13, 2015. Davydova was arrested after she contacted Ukraine's Embassy in Moscow in 2014, saying she thought Russian troops from a nearby base were heading to eastern Ukraine, where a separatist insurgency was unfolding. Russia at the time denied its troops involvement in eastern Ukraine, and the charges against Davydova were eventually dropped. (AP Photo, File)

FILE - Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a meeting with the leadership of military-industrial complex enterprises in Tula, Russia, Friday, Dec. 23, 2022. Treason cases were rare in Russia 30 years ago, with only a handful brought annually. In the last decade and especially since the Kremlin sent troops into Ukraine, however, the number has soared, along with espionage prosecutions. Putin in 2022 urged security services to "harshly suppress the actions of foreign intelligence services (and) promptly identify traitors, spies and saboteurs." (Russian Presidential Press Office, Sputnik Pool Photo via AP, File)

FILE - Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a meeting with the leadership of military-industrial complex enterprises in Tula, Russia, Friday, Dec. 23, 2022. Treason cases were rare in Russia 30 years ago, with only a handful brought annually. In the last decade and especially since the Kremlin sent troops into Ukraine, however, the number has soared, along with espionage prosecutions. Putin in 2022 urged security services to "harshly suppress the actions of foreign intelligence services (and) promptly identify traitors, spies and saboteurs." (Russian Presidential Press Office, Sputnik Pool Photo via AP, File)

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