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Should government reduce military doctors’ service period?
  • By Constance Williams
  • Published 2017.06.26 15:15
  • Updated 2017.06.26 15:17
  • comments 0

The government should curtail the mandatory service period of military doctors from the present 36 months to 33 months, a group of medical college students said recently.

At a meeting to propose medical policies at the National Assembly organized by Rep. Park In-sook, Ryu Wan, head of the Korean Medical Student Association (KMSA) urged the government to shorten the service term to 33 months, including three months of basic training.

“While the terms of duty for enlisted men have gradually been shortened, that for medical officers has never been reduced,” Ryu said. “The government needs to adjust it considering the principle of equity.”

As President Moon Jae-in has pledged to shorten the service period of soldiers to 18 months, many medical college graduates are likely to choose to serve as enlisted men instead of becoming army doctors if the promise becomes a reality, leading to the shortage of medical officers, he said.

“Because of the nature of the army where patients are limited to people in their 20s, the military practitioners experience only narrow medical areas and lose academic accomplishment,” Ryu said. “Due to the extended military service period, doctors are experiencing the problem of career interruption.”

Medical college graduates and doctors have been demanding to reduce their military service period to no avail.

South Korea, which is adopting a conscription system as it has been technically at war with North Korea for more than seven decades, has allowed young people with unique talents, including medical college graduates, to serve as officers during the same period as enlisted men. The terms of service for soldiers have been gradually curtailed from 36 months in the 1970s, but that for medical officers has remained the same.

The nation currently has one of the longest military service periods in the world, ranked behind Israel, Singapore, and North Korea. The length of service varies according to branches: 21 months for Army and Marine Corps, 23 months for the Navy, and 24 months for Air Force.

The service period of military doctors appears to be even longer, as the number of physicians has sharply increased in recently with supply exceeding demand in some areas, according to KMSA.

With doctors competing against one another to work in the major general hospitals in Seoul, rural or remote locations have only small clinics staffed by few specialists and old equipment. The medical divide and the increasing number of military officers have combined to introduce another unique medical culture in this country -- the public doctor system – as the government decided to dispatch some of the doctors, who are required to respond to drafts, to rural clinics instead of being military doctors.

Public health doctors work in public health centers/branches, rural hospitals, detention centers, fire stations and research institutes in 16 metropolises and provinces.

“For many years, doctors have asked the government to shorten their compulsory military services, but the proposal has always been rejected, fearing the inadequacy of army doctors,” said Kim Chul-soo, head of Korean Association of Public Health Doctors. “In my opinion, the government should shorten the service term of military doctors (and public doctors) to two years from the present three.”

The position of the Defense Ministry is adamant, however.

“If we shorten the serviced term of military officers, there will arise problems concerning the replenishment of army doctors,” said Kwon Dae-il, director the ministry’s Manpower Policy Division. “It's hard to reduce their tour of duty.”


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