SEOUL, April 4 –– South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol today met with the main representative of an association of young doctors who walked off the job in February, in his first in-person talks with physicians opposed to his medical reform plans.

The meeting, which Yoon’s office said lasted more than two hours, came after he showed the first signs of flexibility in his plan, having previously taken a hardline approach to the dispute.

The centrepiece of Yoon’s plan is to raise the number of medical school admissions and increase the number of doctors, but many in the industry are instead concerned about securing better working conditions and legal protection.

The government has said that without action the country faces having 15,000 fewer doctors than it needs to maintain essential services largely because its population is rapidly ageing.

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Park Dan, who heads the Korean Intern Resident Association, accepted Yoon’s invitation to meet with trainee doctors who walked off the job on Feb. 20 and conveyed the views of his colleagues, Yoon’s office said in a brief statement.

Yoon and Park exchanged views on improving working conditions and compensation for young doctors, it said.

The president’s office said he will respect the position of the trainee doctors in his future discussions with the medical community on healthcare reforms, including increasing the number of doctors.

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The doctors’ walkout has disrupted functions at hospitals, leading to patients being turned away and non-emergency surgeries being cut back.

Yoon has said the plan to raise the number of new medical students to 5,000 a year from the current 3,000 is not up for discussion but on Monday signalled there may be room for adjusting his plan if the medical community came forward with reasonable proposals.

The country’s practicing physicians and medical school professors have demanded Yoon scrap his reform plans.

The drawn-out walkout by thousands of trainee doctors nationwide is increasingly putting strains on the country’s healthcare system.

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.—Reuters