(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on May 22)

An appellate court's decision last week strongly advanced the government's plan to increase the number of doctors by rejecting an injunction aimed at halting the expansion of the medical school enrollment quota. The decision offers a potential resolution to the three-month-long standoff that began with the walkout of junior doctors. Unlike the lower court, the Seoul High Court's ruling demonstrates a thorough consideration of all facets of the crisis. The court acknowledged that halting the government's plan to increase the enrollment quota would significantly impact public welfare, while also recognizing that the medical students, as eligible petitioners, would face disruptions in their education. The injunction was filed by a group composed of medical school professors, trainee doctors and physicians, questioning the necessity of the government's push to add an extra 2,000 seats annually for five years as of 2025 -- from the current 3,058 seats. The medical community should acknowledge the court's ruling and start working to bring back the junior doctors and others to the overstretched hospitals. However, the medical community has vowed to appeal to the Supreme Court. Instead of digging trenches, it is imperative for both the government and the medical community to honor the court's decision and resume dialogue, recognizing that realistic alternatives are currently lacking. The past three-month standoff has shed light on many sides of Korea's medical sector. The overreliance on junior doctors at major hospitals, the lack of essential field practitioners such as pediatricians, emergency treatment and an aging population that needs more doctors. What we have learned is that the medical community is the most powerful group of workers, in terms of collective action. More than 12,000 junior doctors have walked out since Feb. 20. In the process, patients and all doctors, including those who participated in the walkout, are undoubtedly suffering. Neighboring nations are closely watching how the government and the medical community navigate this crisis and restore top-tier medical services. Particularly noteworthy is the government's indication of recruiting foreign-licensed doctors through a stringent vetting process. The latest statistics offer a glimmer of hope. Last week, the Ministry of Health and Welfare reported that over 67.5 percent of fellow doctors -- those who completed training and are on the path to becoming medical school teachers -- have registered at the nation's 100 training hospitals. This marks a twofold increase from the 33.6 percent recorded in late February. However, the number of returning junior doctors remains minimal, still in the single digits so far. Time is of the essence. The situation demands an attempt to find a speedy exit from the stalemate toward a resolution. Recent polls indicate that a significant majority of Koreans, standing at 72.4 percent, support the quota hike and other medical reforms, recognizing their importance as Korea's population continues to age. The government ur ged universities to swiftly finalize plans for the academic year 2025, providing clarity for applicants. It's crucial for junior doctors to return promptly to qualify for the fellowship test scheduled for this year. Criticism against the court ruling and accusations verging on personal attacks won't help the situation. In particular, Lim Hyun-taek, the new president of the Korean Medical Association, should avoid making accusations that the judge in the case may have been influenced by offers of a Supreme Court bench job. Both the government and the medical community must take decisive action and engage in innovative consultation, such as negotiating from a blank slate for the 2026 academic year. The Seoul High Court highlighted that the government's commitment to increasing the quota by an "extra 2,000 seats" was not adequately substantiated. Allowing this medical crisis to persist is likely to accelerate its consequences, which will not dissipate easily. Source: Yonhap News Agency